By Steve Sanderson
My inbox was hit recently by a couple of posts painting a bleak picture of the impact of BIM on the AECO industry. Thoughtful and objective criticism of BIM is helpful and necessary to counter vendor marketing overreach and fanboy zealotry. Unfortunately the criticisms I read are neither thoughtful nor objective. Instead they rely on sensationalist titles, sources outside of the building industry, and nonexistent relationships between cause-and-effect.
The first, A Cautionary Digital Tale of Virtual Design and Construction published in Engineering News-Record (ENR), describes the construction of an undisclosed building at an undisclosed university that resulted in an undisclosed contractor suing the undisclosed owner, who then sued an undisclosed architect, who brought an undisclosed MEP engineer into the mix. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount by an insurance company. Tellingly, a VP at the insurance company is the only source for the article. The point seems to be that if you use BIM you could be sued.
Without repeating what has already been stated in numerous responses, such as this one from John Tocci (which was removed from the ENR website), the connection between BIM and this lawsuit is at best difficult to discern and at worst not connected at all. If one were to replace BIM with CAD or mylar or bumwad would the situation described turn out differently? No. People would still be suing each other because there was a fundamental breakdown in shared responsibility and communication.
My suggestion to the ENR editors: If your goal is to be a trusted source for industry information avoid the easy sells and focus on the real issues. I propose a revised article title: A Cautionary Tale of Design and Construction: Communication breakdowns can be costly.
Another example of sensationalist rhetoric is the blog post 3 Myths of BIM (for Constructors). It opens by referencing the aforementioned ENR article along with “many more examples illustrating how BIM is far from the panacea claimed by software providers and their bureaucratic partners.” The blogger gives exactly zero additional examples. For the record, my company, CASE, is a BIM Consultancy staffed by architects. We don’t sell software and we are about as far from bureaucratic as you can get. We earn a living by providing innovative solutions to help our clients build more effectively.
The post then attempts to counter some “myths” about BIM beginning with “BIM is Easy.”
If there is one thing that people do not think, it’s that BIM is easy. In fact, based on my company’s experience implementing BIM for a wide range of players in the industry, most people think it’s so hard that they’d rather spend way more time and resources doing something “the way we’ve always done it” than adopt a new process. BIM requires effort and expertise, but so does any other method to accurately document a complex building.
The blogger begins to reveal his hand when he describes the knowledge and skills, that no CAD operator would have, needed to extract useful information from a BIM model. And that’s exactly the point. BIM represents the first time that deep construction knowledge can, and for the benefit of the project should, be embedded into the documentation. CAD operators with no understanding of what they’re drawing or how it relates to the actual building are becoming a thing of the past, just as word processing has led to the extinction of the typist. BIM can and should be driven by design and construction professionals, not CAD specialists. The emerging professionals that can move fluidly from the virtual to the actual will drive the industry forward.
“Myth 2: BIM is Automatic” relies on the same dated assumption as Myth 1, that BIM is created and managed by “isolated CAD operators” who are mindlessly building shapes in the computer. For the record, if this is what you’re doing then you’re not doing BIM. It’s almost universally understood by practitioners that BIM is not simply a technology, but a process that virtually represents a building and much of the information associated with that building.
The author then describes how things involving computers always seem to go wrong and argues “to do this successfully, IT managers must maintain the technology with constant upgrades, backups, repairs, comprehensive and continuous training, and a collection of proprietary tricks, key codes, and macros that work around long and often convoluted command structures.” He just described every CAD production environment outside of sole proprietorships that I’ve ever come across, so what is the proposed solution?
According to the author, “Myth 3” is that “BIM is Useful.” This is where the blog gets somewhat comical. Interspersed with photos of piles of CRT monitors, 60’s era computer operators and a CCTV video of an office worker beating his computer with a sledgehammer, the author claims it’s pointless to use BIM because the technology will just be out of date before the project is complete. His reasoning seems to be that since the hardware and software you’re using now will soon be out of date, that you shouldn’t use current technology? I guess he’s never heard of downward compatibility.
After all of that, I couldn’t wait to hear the punch-line. There had to be one right? The author delivers. Under a section titled: The Solution is Simple. Are you ready for it? Wait…
It’s Google SketchUp!
Didn’t see that coming did you? Don’t get me wrong. SketchUp is a great tool and has many amazing applications throughout all stages of the building design and construction process, from urban planning to design modeling and visualization to analysis to documentation to construction. But to imply that SketchUp can “be used to document constructions, simulate sequence and process, communicate alternatives, and be useful to anyone with the click of a mouse or a tap and pinch of the fingers” without any of the issues above is disingenuous at best and hucksterism at worst.
Yes, SketchUp is an easy 3D modeling tool to learn initially, but to do any of the modeling to the level of detail required to be useful for any of the above statements requires a level of expertise far beyond your casual user. I can’t count the number of times that a firm persisted in using SketchUp until a stage that the model geometry became corrupt and unmanageable (a common trait with visualization-focused mesh-based tools). SketchUp, just like any other 3D tool, should be viewed as just that, a tool that has specific strengths and weaknesses in a BIM-based process, not a miracle solution to all of our problems.
Not to toot our own horn, but we take a decidedly platform agnostic approach to our projects. This presentation CASE gave at BIM Forum describes how we used at least seven different 3D authoring tools in our BIM-based design to fabrication process for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Just for reference, SketchUp was not one of them.