Volume 43, Issue 5 - May 2008

Super Model    
BIM Expert Steve Jones Talks about this Emerging Technology
Part Two of a Two-Part Series 

by Ellen Rogers

“This is definitely the biggest thing to happen in my career and I’ve been in this business almost 30 years.” That’s what Steve Jones, senior director for McGraw-Hill Construction, says about building information modeling (BIM). McGraw-Hill Construction operates the online Sweet’s Network, a site where companies can post their modeled products. And what, exactly, is BIM? Simply put, it’s a tool that allows planners, designers, manufacturers, contractors, glazing subcontractors and owners to work from the same object-related database. In other words, instead of project drawings of lines, arcs and texts, everyone involved with the construction is able to visualize the entire building with a 3D model representation.

And with a growing interest in the technology, Jones says this year is the year for BIM. In fact, according to McGraw-Hill Construction’s 2007 Interoperability SmartMarket Report, the construction industry will exceed the tipping point for BIM in 2008. “That doesn’t mean the majority of firms will be using BIM,” says Jones. “It means there’s no going back.”

The architectural and design communities may be jumping on the BIM bandwagon, but contract glaziers have been slower to begin using the tools. But Jones says it’s just a matter of time before contract glaziers begin adopting the technology.

“Traditionally, trade contractors are reactive. They deal with the contract documentation they receive, which has always been 2D drawings and text specs, and conduct their business according to the procurement process of the general contractor. Some glazing contractors use sophisticated tools to do their estimates and fabricate their finished work, but the value of that technology isn’t shared [with other team members]. It is a local benefit just to them.” Jones continues, “With this emerging [technology] they will have the opportunity to leverage their industry expertise and their supporting technologies to play a greater role earlier in the design process. Those who are willing and prepared to step up to this new role will thrive, and that will influence everybody else to get involved.”

So BIM is here to stay. But just where did it come from? Who are the key players and just where does the glass and glazing industry fit in? Jones talked with USGlass about BIM, how it’s used and also how contract glaziers can benefit. And as far as glass fabricators and curtainwall suppliers? BIM has a role to play with them too. See the April 2008 USGlass, page 28, to read more about how they are getting involved.

Q: How long has BIM been out there?
This capability of 3D modeling built with intelligent objects has been used for approximately 20 years, beginning when the aerospace, automotive and shipbuilding industries [used these tools] to create their products. It’s only in the past five years that it’s been introduced into the building space. There’s a lot of precedence for how to do this from the other industries that have achieved a lot of efficiencies from the automation. 

Q: What is it that’s been bringing BIM to the forefront? 
I think the fact that the major computer-aided design (CAD) vendors—AutoDesk and Bentley—both acquired companies within the past five to eight years that have an object-oriented design technology. Bentley bought a company called Triforma and AutoCad, which probably has 90 percent of the architects using its tools, bought Revit. Both companies have been promoting the technologies to their users, so their driving it into the marketplace is what has really brought it into the construction industry. 

Q: Are they the only two software programs? 
The company that originally developed this technology for the aerospace, automotive and shipbuilding industries is a French company called Dassault Systemes. That company developed a tool called Catia, and the power of it is you can design a very complicated product completely virtually, test it and simulate its operations so you don’t have to build big, expensive prototypes. [The construction industry’s] contact point was with Frank Gehry. Being that he does these very complicated exterior envelopes, it was difficult for him to describe those to contractors. So he found this Catia program and, with it, once you design something fabricators can then take that model and use it to drive computer-milling machines. It takes you directly from the designer’s model right to the equipment on the shop floor that’s creating the parts and pieces. Now, there’s a commercial version of that for architecture that is being promoted by Frank Gehry’s company and it’s called Digital Project.

The fourth player is called Graphisoft and it’s owned by a German company that has bought up a lot of the building information modeling tools in various European countries. It doesn’t have as big of a footprint in the United States because it’s difficult to come in and compete with AutoDesk. So, as opposed to going after the architects, they’ve gone after contractors. That tool is called ArchiCad, and it’s a 3D-design tool that also has integrated scheduling and budgeting so you have a full 5D-offering [Note: 4D is time and 5D is cost]. We’re seeing a lot of contractors picking up these tools and using them because their fabrication can be so much more efficient. 

Q: In addition to these programs, there are also BIM libraries. What are they for? 
Typically, early in the design process an architect would populate the design with generic products, which serve as placeholders. The architect doesn’t really need to go to a proprietary manufacturers-specific solution until later on in the process. Now, as architects create these BIMs with placeholders, most of the software companies provide a library of product placeholders. A door, for example, will simply have some basic dimensions; it won’t have any data at all attached to it. But the power of BIM, as opposed to regular CAD, is that you can bring in an object that has a lot of data fields that can be populated with information so that object will actually know about itself as opposed to just being some lines that have no further intelligence. You’re now working with intelligent objects that know how they are supposed to behave in the design. For instance if you’re designing a curtainwall, you put in very simple placeholders that hold the place of the geometry of that curtainwall. Then you can get basic sizes and information of glass and metal, but still they’re just holding the place while you work on the design. As you further develop the design you need to bring in the more specific information. 

The problem with a product line that has a lot of different alternatives, such as a curtainwall or storefront system, is that it’s not very practical to model in advance every possible size, every possible configuration and have that waiting on a shelf. That’s one approach of doing this.

We’re [Mcgraw-Hill] also working with a company [DeMichele Systems] that’s going to launch a product for the glazing industry during the AIA show in May and what that does is allow the designer to configure online what he wants, the sizes and types of glass, metal and hardware that fit the job (see April 2008 USGlass, page 30). Then he presses a button and the BIM content for that design is created on the fly. He can then put that information into the BIM model itself. That’s a far more efficient way going forward, rather than thinking you have to build every single product you have in advance. 

Q: With so many different programs available, does that mean everyone on the project team has to be on the same program? If not, how do they work together? 
The word for that is interoperability. The reality of life in the western culture is when you build a product, you want your product to win; you don’t think about operating with anybody else when you build your tool. So, you have AutoDesk, which came out with Revit and that company is rapidly working to build mechanical, electrical and structural programs to go with it so you can just work within a Revit universe. Bentley is the same way, though they’ve been at it a bit longer. 

Its Triforma tool is fully integrated for architectural and design, and they also have mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire, life safety, civil and structural programs. So, yes, it will increasingly become possible to work within one player’s tool. However, not everybody always wants to do that, and there can be problems with interoperability. 

There is a tool called NavisWorks, which allows the various models from different software companies to be viewed as though they were all the same. As a result, clash detection has become the low-hanging fruit for BIM. People enjoy the fact that you can take the different designs, at least to view them, and find the clashes in a virtual space before [you’re in the field]. That doesn’t get to the core of interoperability, but it does at least provide a faux version of it that is very practical. Now, late last year AutoDesk bought that NavisWorks program, which had been an independent entity. Everyone became afraid when AutoDesk stepped in and bought it, but so far they’ve done all the right things, letting everyone use the tool … they are not making it proprietary. And that’s good. 

Q: What happens if you have a project team in which not everyone is using BIM? 
That happens every day. It’s the difference in a local benefiter and a global benefiter. Any player individually can achieve a local benefit by modeling. The efficiencies are so great they can find all the clashes in the job, report it to the owners and then fabricate multiple systems together and bring them to the jobsite. 

They could know that within a 16th of an inch, for example, they are absolutely perfect. A lot of architects are modeling, but not really anybody else is. Modeling also allows for better communication [with everyone on the job] because it’s such a powerful visualization tool.

Plus, any of these programs can still pump out a set of 2D drawings if you want them to. 

Q: How can the contract glaziers get involved and start using BIM? 
A: There’s a couple of different ways. There’s this configurator tool, which can do a structured product selection. A lot of times the glazier will get a design specification that says to use one specific manufacturer’s product or an “as equal to.” 

This tool will allow the contract glazier to do a cost estimate and a structural design analysis with all of the products that have the ability to meet that specification. This way they know in advance what their “equals” are. Also, if they favor a particular manufacturer they can put that information in, get a printed report and prove to the architect that a [particular product] is equal to the one specified.

I think that as this industry matures you will see the model staying in its native 3D format. Further down the supply chain, glaziers will be asked to consume, if you will, a 3D model opposed to 2D drawings. And those contract glaziers that are able to do that will be favored by these project teams because they are the ones able to play in this new space. 

Q: What are the greatest benefits for contract glaziers?
The process change that BIM has engendered is known as integrated project delivery. And that’s a whole new way of doing projects. [In the past we’ve seen a] linear process where the architect basically designs the whole project [without input from the other trades]. Later on members of those other trades, such as the contract glazier, would have to come in and modify that design and that traditionally is a source of stress, especially depending on how late in the process they’re brought in. What’s happening now is that architects are bringing in trade contractors and suppliers early on in the design phase and asking for their expertise and knowledge in the design. So for building product manufacturers, that means their products have a chance of being specified almost immediately, and the contract glaziers can be brought in with their expertise to help configure the design. And that’s a new way to do a project. It really didn’t make sense doing that before you could model things. 

Q: What are the challenges and concerns for contract glaziers? 
This will change the legal agreements between companies. We’re all used to having this very liability-focused way of setting up contracts, and when you’re working collaboratively it becomes much more about the group. Owners are looking at other ways of setting up contracts now where everybody’s profit is guaranteed, because what you’re all working toward is an incentive that’s achieved collaboratively. 

It’s never about whose fault it is, it’s only about how we can solve this problem together because we all rise and fall as a group. It takes a whole new way of thinking; you have to be ready for that and willing to work in this new way as opposed to thinking totally about letting the contractor protect your interest against any kind of problem.

Q: What advice would you give a contract glazier working toward making this transition? 
I would say it would be very smart to speak with some of the architects in the area who are using BIM. Do some research and find people who are using the tools and go and talk to them. Find out how they are working now that’s different and what they as the contract glazier can do differently. 

Find out how they can get involved earlier or in a different way than they have in the past. Also, it would be good to start putting a bit of pressure on their industry associations and organizations to help them as a group get smarter about this. 

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for USGlass magazine.

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