Building With Information Management (Part Two) — Families, Budgets, Instructions and Models

One of the main benefits of designing in a BIM environment is the use of object libraries, which allow for standard items to be re-used and repeated across the building.  As with a ‘traditional’ library, each item in an object library must be easy to identify, so everything’s coded and classified into “families” and “sub-families” (such as “furniture” leading to “bedroom furniture” and “lounge furniture” or “doors” leading to “external doors” and “internal doors”) to further improve selection.  This also covers items like the electrical cabling, mechanical ducting, windows and so on – it doesn’t have to just be stuff which can be taken with you when you move!  These items can then be selected by the architects and engineers when they’re designing the building.  Each item’s embedded information will also stay with it, containing details such as item size, material make-up, whether each bit is recyclable and/ or potentially hazardous to health and, of course, cost.

While this is all very interesting to those of us who like that kind of thing, this means that those interested in the price of windows, for example, will have a better idea how much glass will be used and roughly how that compares to the budget.  Similarly, the architect can easily work out how much bricks would cost instead of a plastered frontage, wood cladding or pebble dash for our little block of flats.  It also means that the architect can work out if the high-end self-cleaning glass in that massive feature atrium is within budget (it probably isn’t) or if some standard windows would do the job just as well for a fraction of the price (they probably will)

Using the data in the virtual model, the designers are able to work out how much carpet or how many floor tiles were needed for each room.  Not only that, they could work out how long it would take to clean each type (so it could take 10 minutes to mop a floor or five minutes to hoover a carpet) which would help them work out how much the flooring would cost to maintain.  So far, so good.  But there’s more…

  • If a carpet has an expected life of say five years and costs about £15 per square metre, the building owner will know that in five years they’ll need to budget about £240 to replace a carpet for a room that’s four square metres
  • Similarly floor tiles might have an expected life of say ten years and cost £20 per square metre so our building owner will know that in ten years they’ll need to budget about £320 to replace the floor tiles in the same size room
  • Taking these two prices (or more if you think about other options such as carpet tiles, wood floorboards, a more expensive carpet, vinyl or laminate, for example) will help the building’s owner work out the best lifecycle cost of the flooring
  • And as if that wasn’t enough, the guarantee and even the receipt can be embedded in the virtual model, along with the all-important instructions on how to clean it properly and remove grass or ink stains. And if it’s guaranteed to last for five years and only lasts three, it’s easier for the owner to go back to the carpet supplier and tell them there’s something wrong

And it’s not just flooring. Think of the fan units in the kitchen and bathrooms, the oven, the fridge, the boiler, the TV…  even how much the paint costs on the walls.  And speaking as someone who’s just moved house, blinds and curtains, I wish I had this information (and that I knew why none of the windows in my house seem to be standard sizes!).

Creating the virtual model isn’t just about making sure all the pipes, wires, windows, walls and floors are all in the right places or to track costs and check whether things are recyclable or how to replace them; these models allow the designers to embed documents to items inside the model, which can then be accessed by those using (and crucially, maintaining) the building in the future.

This also means the building’s end-user can open the virtual model and the instructions for the fridge or the cooker will be embedded in the model and associated with the item, alongside the installation information, the guarantee and all those other important things that are in a ring binder in the loft, or stuffed into “that drawer” in the kitchen (or under the sofa).  And of course this doesn’t just cover the fridge and the oven.  It’s the same for the central heating system, the extractor fan, the hot water cylinder, the microwave, the television and any other things which need instructions.

Designing in a BIM environment also allows the designers, builders and end-users to capture and analyse performance data to drive more efficient operations and feed back into future designs.  Yes, this might sound like overkill for a house, but think of managing all this information for equipment and other gubbins somewhere like a school.  Or a hospital.  Or a library.  Or…  again, the list is endless.

Of course there’s more to these models.  They’re not just intended for the designers and the end-users or owners.  They can also help the construction teams to work out if everything’s in the right place.  The model can be input into an augmented reality model, meaning those on site can check that what they’ve built complies with what the designers intended – this can not only reduce errors on site, but can also help ensure compliance with building regulations and the like.  For example, on some building sites today it’s not unusual to see construction workers wandering around carrying tablets rather than drawings.  It’s also possible to put data from these models into virtual reality models, meaning those using the building in the future would be able to have a full virtual tour before any work has even started on site – in February last year, for example, Network Rail launched a ‘virtual’ version of Waterloo station showing how it will look once the old Eurostar platforms are converted to use by domestic train services[1].  And just a few weeks ago, a virtual version of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, was released by the structural engineers working on the project[2] so the public can walk around it without leaving home.  One of my team pointed out that it’s a bit like a Kindle, but for buildings.

last time: Part One — When, What and Why
next time: Part Three — Not Just Buildings


Building With Information Management (Part One) — What, When and Why?

The UK Infrastructure & Projects Authority estimates that the UK architecture, engineering and construction sector employs around three million people (almost 10% of the working population), contributing around £90 billion to the economy – about 7% of the UK’s GDP[1].  It is estimated that worldwide construction output will reach £9.5 trillion (US$12 trillion) by 2025[2], so we’re talking big money.  Numerous studies have identified that the construction industry is inefficient, and that its short-term perspective hampers both innovation and technical development. Dutch architect Ben van Berkel sums it up saying that “while we are all using iPhones, construction is still in the Walkman phase” with many AEC professionals using hand-drawn plans often “riddled with errors”[3].  Big money and inefficiency are not a good combination.  I’ve heard it said that “we’ve always done it this way” is the most expensive sentence in construction: I think that’s true in almost any industry.

The 2018 Quality in Construction conference in London identified a number of reasons why things go wrong with buildings during design and construction, including

  • late design changes
  • poorly communicated design information
  • incorrect design information
  • poor interface management[4]

Information professionals already know that if information is structured in a way that makes it easy to find, interpret and reuse, this reduces waste and errors as well as improving the clarity.  In construction, that clarity is of cost, delivery and the handover of information for reuse during the operation and maintenance of the asset (which is construction speak for “building”).

This is increasingly managed through designing in what’s known as “a BIM environment”.  BIM stands for Building Information Management (or Building Information Modelling).  So what is BIM?

Let’s take some Lego as an example.  If we ignore the fact that it’s Lego for a moment and think of them as traditional building materials and components such as roof tiles, doors, windows, bricks and so on and remember that they’re all standard sizes and weights, we know what materials were used in the manufacture (meaning we know how sustainable the component is, how suitable it is for various applications, which regulations it complies with and whether it’s recyclable, for example).

All this means we know everything about that long blue brick, the big fat red brick, the small yellow brick, the little green one and even that black L-shaped one propped up there on the right, which helps us know how and when each one can and should be used.  While the software used to design this way is relatively new, in real life, the methodologies behind BIM are nothing new:

  • In 1912, it became necessary to replace the crumbling Caen stone façade on Buckingham Palace’s East (Front) Wing. The contractors completed the works in 13 weeks through the use of formalised information sharing between design and construction disciplines and off-site fabrication[5]
  • A few years later, New York’s Empire State Building, opened in May 1931 fewer than two years after building started due in part to “a team-design approach that involved the collaboration of the architects, owners, builders, and engineers in planning and problem-solving, and the organizational genius of the general contractors”[6]

In both these cases, believe it or not, this approach was revolutionary.

10 years ago when I joined the firm I work for now, I assumed architects did everything (some will tell you they still do).  However, architects work alongside mechanical and electrical engineers, public health specialists (who look after plumbing and pipes), structural engineers, façade specialists, interior designers… the list goes on.  Often these disciplines are all from different organisations and have different ideas about whatever it is they are designing.  And where things get really complicated is getting all those disciplines to work together and essentially design the same building – it’s harder than it sounds.  For a start, it’s imperative that they all share their information so they end up designing the same building.  BIM is designed to standardise how these disciplines share their information.

Lego Emmet minifig

In construction, everything is awesome

Of course if everyone’s collaborating, it’s also imperative that everything’s called the same thing.  For example, some architects call big runs of windows “fenestrations” and in the construction industry those dealing with electrical, mechanical and air conditioning units etc are known as “MEP engineers” (it stands for “mechanical, electrical and plumbing” or “mechanical, electrical and public health” or even “mechanical, electrical and piping”, depending on who you talk to — even MEP engineers don’t all agree on what “MEP” stands for).  And then there’s the question of whether the main entrance is on the ground floor, the first floor or level one.  And have you noticed that many buildings in the US often don’t have a 13th floor?  The whole project needs to agree on all this and other things such as how to identify different items in both virtual models and traditional drawings.  Items like cable types – CAT6 and internet cabling, power cables, telephone cabling, speaker and public address cables or what each type of pipe is intended for – is it gas, fresh air, waste water, drinking water, rainwater…  Even which way the water or gas flows within the pipes is important.  Again, the list is endless.

Next time: Part Two — Families, Budgets, Instructions and Models

[1] Infrastructure & Projects Authority, 2016. Government Construction Strategy 2016-20, London: HMSO
[2] Esticast, 2017. Building Information Modeling Market By Solution (Software, Services), Deployment Model (On-premises, Cloud) & By Application Areas (Commercial, Residential, Industrial, Infrastructure, Institutional), Industry trends, Estimation & Forecast, 2015 – 2024, Elizabeth, NJ: Esticast Research & Consulting
[3] Economist reporter, 2017. Least Improved. The Economist, 424 (9054), pp. 55-56
[6] Willis, C., 1998. Building the Empire State. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company