A few years ago, an international architectural studio famous for its modern, glass-and-steel designs shared an interesting story about the impact building information modelling was having on project delivery. The switch to three-dimensional design had fully automated the creation of two-dimensional construction drawings. Instead of taking days to generate thousands of fully coordinated drawing sets, as when using 2D CAD, 3D models produced that quantity of sheet sets in mere minutes!

Sound too good to be true? In a way, it was. As the firm’s senior partner and head of technology said, “We buried our QA/QC process in data.”

That partner explained that, years earlier, they had developed a document management database to track drawing revisions and ensure the quality of design deliverables. But with the move to BIM, they found it couldn’t keep up with the thousands of revised drawings to be “QA’d”, issued and tracked with each iteration of the model.

In short, the document control process critical to the firm’s reputation needed revamping to avoid becoming a bottleneck.

Extending the models’ outputs to the field

The QA and revision management of sheet sets generated from a model is just one aspect of the BIM output challenge. Let’s not forget that the raison d'être for these sheets is to help clarify things for people in the field. And more and more, contractors are moving away from paper to electronic plan viewing on tablets and large, interactive touch screens. Therefore, realising the promise of BIM will entail making its outputs available on electronic devices at the job site.

Consider the value of electronic plans and specs on just one aspect of construction, the management of punch lists (termed “snag lists” in the United Kingdom and “defects” in Australia). Instead of lugging plans, specifications, cameras, pens and clipboards into the field, architects and engineers are walking down sites using electronic tablets (such as iPads) equipped with apps to display documents and compile punch lists.

It’s akin to a magic act to see information flow from the 3D model to a document control centre to a plans app. It’s icing on the cake to see quality notations taken at the job site populate desktop software used to manage those action items. No more transcribing notes from a clipboard to a computer! It’s a seamless loop, from the office to the field and back to the office.

These electronic workflows begin to fulfil the promise of BIM: that more people exchange more information with less effort in order to produce better projects at lower cost in less time.

These are a few of the challenges to managing BIM outputs. But that’s just half of it. For BIM’s success also hinges on stepped-up collaboration at the outset of a project. To collaborate on that scale, you’ll need to get a better handle on BIM’s inputs, as well.

An example will help.

More collaboration = more inputs

Many have noted that, to make BIM really successful, you need the input of all project stakeholders as early as possible in the design process. In other words, before ground is broken in real life, the project is built digitally, and to do so, you need input from the people who will build it.

As a result, with BIM, much of the coordination that traditionally transpired in the course of construction is shifted and compressed into preconstruction. Representatives of the client, the contractor, the consultants and subcontractors – civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection – and other team members all contribute ideas to optimise form, function and the construction process.

It’s an intense period of collaboration. While it’s best done face-to-face, decisions are largely settled and documented via email. Lots of email.

A project director from an engineering firm once noted that halfway through one notable project his staff had saved over 150,000 project-related emails to the shared folder on their email server.

In addition to email, that company’s file server had over 2.25 terabytes of data for the project, from PDFs and BIM models to shop drawings, specs, reports, meeting minutes, site photos, and other images.

And all that design, construction and model input requires management.

There was so much information, and so many different versions of the same information, that finding information was practically impossible. The challenge was complicated by the fact that the person seeking information was different from the person filing it. The engineering project director estimated his staff wasted up to 20 percent of their time looking for information!

They tried to fix the problem by imposing stringent filing rules, but items nonetheless landed in places they were not supposed to be under filenames they were not supposed to have.

That’s one challenge to managing BIM inputs. There are others:

  • To collaborate, files must be shared, and the 3D, input-rich models are very large, making sharing tedious, particularly considering the security, audit trail and revision management requirements such sharing must have.
  • Team members who don’t have the native BIM authoring software need practical ways to view and navigate the models, and repurpose information within them.
  • All the decisions captured in meetings need to be documented, tracked and acted upon.

So there you have it: To realise the promise of BIM, companies need systems to manage its inputs and outputs. Is this a new idea? Well, no. The United Kingdom, for one, has recognised this fact for years.

The UK recognises the importance of managing BIM processes

The UK, with its mandate that all government projects must be delivered in BIM by 2016, is betting big on BIM. The government strategists behind this initiative have been clear about the benefits they’re expecting:

  • 33% reduction in the cost of built assets
  • 50% reduction in time from inception to completion
  • 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment
  • 50% reduction in trade gap between exports and imports of construction products and materials

Based on these projected benefits, the government is mandating that public sector projects – which make up 40 percent of the country’s construction – employ BIM on a gradually increasing scale.

For example, by 2016, firms competing for government contracts will need to employ fully collaborative practices they’re calling “Level 2” BIM. The mandate recognises the growth in project information resulting from these practices “must be managed by some form of enterprise resource planning tool”. This is a key point in the context of this article: The UK mandate recognises that, to function successfully, BIM must operate in the context of a larger information management system.

How does it work in practice?

Rendering order from chaos

Wherever they’re located, companies implementing BIM are working out the ways they’ll manage inputs and outputs. Some will try to do it the way they’ve always managed project information, which means they maintain lists in spreadsheets; share files via email, FTP, or cloud file sharing sites; rely on filenames and folders to locate information; and generally leave it to individuals to manage.

Others are taking a more systematic approach.

For example, one of the UK’s largest design firms has deployed an enterprise project information management solution to maintain what BRE, the Building Research Establishment, calls a “common data environment”, or CDE. The CDE comprises the graphical model, non-graphical data, and documentation – in other words, more than just the model.

The firm also uses the software to apply a standard set of action items to each project, asking individuals to complete specific documents as part of the BIM execution plan. When completed, these documents can then be accessed by all team members via the Project Handbook menu they added to the project information management software.

The software’s structure gives the firm a means of ensuring a high standard for quality and consistency in the professional services they deliver, which is key to their ISO 9001, 14001, 27001 and BIM Level 2 compliance. The system’s flexibility makes it more practical than more rigid systems.

The system also fulfils mandates to be able to “communicate, re-use and share data efficiently without loss, contradiction or misinterpretation”, as well as be able to archive information transfers, models, documents, contract documents, and operational and maintenance information.

The system works. In November of 2014, this firm was the very first in the UK to achieve BIM Level 2 certification by the independent BRE auditors. According to the firm’s IT director, the project information management system “was key to enabling us to achieve BIM Level 2 certification”.

As a director at BRE explained, “Certification under the scheme saves time in tendering processes and puts business like this at the forefront of the BIM working environment.”

Clearly, the BIM Level 2 mandate is going to move the needle in the UK.

Meanwhile, in North America

Even without a BIM Level 2 government mandate, North American companies are seeking ways to manage BIM’s high-speed information inputs and outputs.

Companies are adopting software that integrates with Revit to batch-publish sheets to PDFs managed by a document control register. From there, the sheets can be efficiently QA’d and issued to the extended team, along with an audit trail of superseded revisions.

A process that traditionally took days – and the better part of a week on large-scale projects – is being compressed to hours. And replacement of a tedious, manual process with an automated, closed loop means document controllers can reinvest the time saved in quality control, not to mention keep up with the furious pace of model iterations.

By properly managing and coordinating information, teams are avoiding the dreaded risk of having multiple versions of information stored in separate silos, requiring double- or triple-handling to close the loop back to the office. Most importantly, teams reduce the risk of working from outdated information.

Further, project information management software that provides a Google-like search function provides users with an ability to find search terms as they appeared in emails and attachments, as well as PDF, DWG, Office files and more.

In the case of the company with 150,000 project emails and 2.25TB of project files, that abundance of information has become a resource the firm now uses to improve project delivery not just on the immediate project, but on others to come.

As one director from a prominent international design firm recently stated, “Properly implemented, BIM will eliminate physical waste on site, but only if the stakeholders effectively manage the resulting digital waste.”

Defusing the project information explosion

BIM is a reality. It’s come of age, and when properly implemented is delivering tangible benefits to all project stakeholders. But out of necessity, BIM projects create information in quantities that threaten to hobble the most disciplined companies. As companies move forward with their BIM implementations, they’re also adopting adjunct systems to manage BIM inputs and outputs in a way that helps them deliver on the promise of BIM.

Allen Preger is a co-founder and vice president of global accounts for Newforma Australia.