Absolute Beginner's Guide to the BIM Universe

Space is non-fungible

Building spaces for people is different than manufacturing products like the iPhone. No two spaces are exactly equal, since they can never simultaneously occupy the same real world space. Suburban sprawl, clone copied apartment buildings, stringent international office standards are attempts to reduce these differences in hardware. 

The value of built space is a co-creation of the building, location and space contained, and value generating activities. From planning, to design, to construction, to operation; Each step in the value chain is towards an imagined "best use", or the most value-able activity enabled by the space.

Since the dawn of time, diagrams, drawings, and models were the way we communicated about building ideas. Buildings, like social structures, facilitate the coordination of individuals towards a common goal. As such, they are bigger than any one of our single imaginations. Drawings not only represent a potential building idea, but is the medium of communication and agreement. Only by the coordinated efforts of many, can a new human value machine be built.

We have used drawings to communicate building plans since the early days ofcivilization. The simple floor plan is still able to clearly communicate rooms and passages, as well as labels. 

Plans of a six-room building, a sanctuary or a private house. Clay, late 3rd millennium BC. From Telloh, ancient Girsu. Source: Wikipedia


A user friendly CAD?

"Disruption" is the word used by the computing revolution in its treatment of industries lagging in technical adoption. Disruption may be what many in the industry want. For builders, the computing age dramatically increased pressure.

Each of the four stages has become more demanding. Planning has grown in scale and complexity. Urban development plans include millions of residents and hundreds of past and future uses. Design needs to validate constraints with more accuracy and urgency. Construction grows in scale and in speed pressure. More people on site, coordinating millions of tasks between them, in ever shrinking schedules. Operational models are becoming more and more destabilized, with tech enabled operators requiring more precision and fidelity.

Computer aided design (CAD) is our first savior. Rendering complex geometric forms by hand requires patience, steadiness, and tooling. With computer graphics, we are able to generate more complex forms with more detail, enabling us to take a building idea out of the mind and into the digital space.

You'll have a hard time meeting people who are bleeding heart CAD lovers. CAD software is well known for abrasive interfaces requiring a steep learning curve. So much so, that majority of CAD users never fully extract value from their software.

So why do we use it? Computers are the only way we can produce coordinated drawing sets to describe today's complex buildings. CAD is more commonly used as a drawing tool than an extension of the builder's mind. The pen and paper analogs were the start, such as line-weights and layers. In a new user's perspective, CAD starts as a digital pen and paper, rather than a digital modeling system.

Technology Driven Innovation

Treating CAD like pen and paper is an important perspective issue. One that will make or break your transition into BIM. I've seen many scenarios where the digital is secondary, with heavy work-arounds because of the emphasis on how drawings look on paper. This shouldn't be surprising. Drawing sets are how we communicate and before-deadline drawing patches are a normal part of our ingrained behavior. However, as long as our perspectives remain so, we miss the bigger picture.

If you use the internet on any digital device, then you must know that communicating through computers is a richer medium than paper drawings. Outside of the computer industry, we've seen digital workflows disrupt many fields. Pixar's innovation is not only in the film outcome, but the dazzling technology shown off at SIGGRAPH . Perhaps their innovation through mastery of their technology has a profound influence on their filmmaking, not the other way around.

Building Information on the other hand, is a digital medium for the representation and communication of building ideas. Extra emphasis on communication. The promise of BIM is not in the ends, but in the journey.

Drawings communicate slowly with a high barrier to information. People like us undergo intense study and training just to be able to read drawings to form a whole building idea. Even then, drawing standards have to be established for the visual language to have agreed upon meanings for symbols. CAD helps us produce drawings faster, but the improvement to communicating building ideas is minimal.

An elevated perspective for communicating building ideas

Building Information has the ability to communicate high fidelity connected building ideas. To see the improvement, let's walk through how a building idea is read from a set of drawings.

Drawing sets increase fidelity through additional drawings at varied scales. The part to whole relationship must be put together by the reader through referencing multiple drawings. Connection between geometry and what it represents is again produced in drawings by additional pages with callouts and labels. The reader mentally applies the information to the geometric shape they are holding in their mind. Making design decisions requires combining the drawings correctly. This requires enormous mental fortitude and organization effort. It's no wonder there are so many past the deadline errors and well established formalized ways to deal with them.

In a digital model, the part to whole relationship is described as a digital version of the physical world. The reader doesn't have to formulate the imagined object and relationships, it's right there for them to see. Connections are embedded in the metadata in the model. A building idea, kitchen, appliances, plants and all, can be represented in a complete set. When a building information model is transferred, the reader receives not only the geometry, but the ideas and decisions connected to the entire building idea.

With data as the medium, building information enables all the communication possibilities that come with the digital. Every stakeholder in the building life-cycle could contribute to and draw from the same dataset. Cloud technology has made the size of the dataset irrelevant. What is communicated is only limited to our imagination and our technical capability.

Building Information Management is the process, tools, and technologies for the representation of buildings as data. As a drawing generator and transfer format, it's definitely effective. However, that is only a small part of the value of BIM. Data as a native medium, across the diversity of protocols available, enables novel workflows that weren't possible ten or even five years ago. BIM means building different by communicating differently.