Power to the planners (and why BIM doesn’t really exist)

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The BIM software sector has five steps to take if the technology is truly to deliver value and more closely meet the needs of the professionals it serves, writes Tal Friedman


Digital optimisation promises to revolutionise the world of con struction via ‘Industry 4.0’ mechanisms. But current BIM solutions, being pure geometry platforms, have little to contribute in terms of solving today’s problems. In fact, they may actually be part of the problem.

A controversial statement, maybe – but let’s look at the impact of optimisation and automation on another sector: manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution and the invention of the assembly line triggered a giant leap in manufacturing productivity, reducing the relative cost of a car by a 10x multiple over the course of just over a century.

Yet, over the same time period, construction costs have consistently risen, because on-site automation is nowhere to be seen. In the planning world, the focus has been on optimising the production of documents, rather than the performance metrics of the final building. In other words, we have industrialised planners, not buildings.

Focus on the right problems

So what does this mean for the promise of BIM? Is BIM even focused on the right problems?

These questions remind me of a story I heard about a large toothpaste company, looking to increase its market share and assembling a crack team of scientists, designers and marketers to come up with the world’s best toothpaste. After a lengthy R&D process, their decision was unanimous: increase the nozzle diameter on a tube of toothpaste by 2mm.

It seems that the AEC world is not so different from the world of dental product R&D. Despite rising software prices and the move to subscription-based software-as-a-service platforms, not much has really changed over the years since the introduction of BIM in the early days of Revit.

Little of the innovation we see actively seeks to address the sector’s inherent problems. Software suppliers scramble to make the move to the cloud and M&A activity flourishes in the sector, with deals springing up like mushrooms after the rain – but that’s because the holy grail for these technology vendors is to control the complete supply chain via unified platforms. The big question for customers, however, is this: What are we getting in return?

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That’s not to say, of course, that BIM has created no value at all. On the contrary, it has supported some incredible projects, delivered with very high levels of detailing – but these typically involve extremely high budgets and designated BIM experts, and by no means reflect the average project.

In fact, despite BIM’s promise to support more design freedom and bring down planning times, it still takes an average of two to three years to design a multifamily project, regardless of the planning method involved. This may explain why only one in five offices have adopted BIM to its full extent. At the majority of firms, employees swap between four or five platforms — SketchUp, AutoCAD, Rhino, 3ds Max, Solidworks, Revit and so on — with each one providing just one small piece of the puzzle.

Five changes needed

So what needs to happen for BIM to truly deliver value and more closely meet the sector’s needs?

First, we need real-world data integration. As mentioned previously, BIM architectural models are still pure geometry, detached from real-world data. This means a design will undergo endless iteration loops, each involving different stakeholders and consultants who add their input and enforce changes.

Tal Friedman
Tal Friedman

Second, we need the integration of manufacturing data. If we are unable to estimate costs in the planning stages and understand the implications of design changes, we are designing for the lowest denominator. Simply put, we cannot speak of robotic automation and design for bricklayers.

Third, we need a lower barrier to entry for BIM. Due to its complexity, BIM managers have become the norm, meaning increased workforce numbers and costs. This often involves asking the client to increase the planning budget, too.

Fourth comes increased flexibility. Designing in template-based environments leads to high rigidity and an inability to customise without deep technical manoeuvres. Software must support more customisation while remaining in the scope of feasibility.

Fifth and finally, an easier learning curve is a must-have. It is said that for an average office to make a complete BIM transformation takes two to three years, during which the team will undergo a painful period of relearning. This risks losing control of projects and experiencing a degree of trial and error that few offices can afford.

The missing link here? Design with purpose. As buildings become smarter and more technological, it is clear they will also need smarter planning tools. The race to arms is on!

The software of tomorrow will be much more than ‘just’ software. It will be deeply nested within the value chain of a project. For this reason, the AEC field is hotter than ever, characterised by a race to dominate the sector in a 360-degree approach.

From the ground up

But the solution to the problem — as always — comes from the ground up. With mounting international efforts and pressure to reduce both CO2 emissions and building costs, it is no longer an option to ‘choose not to choose’. Developers and contractors have to show empirical evidence of gains in order to get ahead of the game. Projects that fail to comply with these standards will simply be thrown off the wagon.

The age of artificial intelligence, or AI, promises to put the intelligence into BIM, adding valuable information to models that will help optimise buildings and shorten design loops. For this to happen, the boundaries must blur between designer, builder and regulator, with all three groups working from a unified data hub. Writing about these topics naturally raises many questions on actual implementation plans and next steps. I cannot, of course, speak for the whole industry, but in my work with Foldstruct, we are working to implement those principles and use AI in a unified platform that calls all stakeholders to get involved, regardless of format or pedigree.

Technologies that bring value should take the lead. Those that don’t will simply have to try harder, regardless of market share.

It is time to bring the power back to planners and free them to spend more time designing and less time drafting. The age of closed circles and formats is over. Welcome to the age of optimisation!


About the author

Tal Friedman is an architect and construction-tech entrepreneur active in automated algorithm-based design-to-fabrication. His work explores new possibilities for transforming the built environment through innovative use of materials and creating new typologies for architecture and structural purposes. Tal has also presented at NXT BLD.

Read more of his articles here

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