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Is BIM the future?

by mel starrs on November 13, 2007

in Engineering & Science

BIM (Building Information Modelling) has long been the way I think the industry ought to work. It just seems so logical to me. The premise is simple – build an intelligent 3D model of a building which can be exported and manipulated by various designers, including architects, structural engineers and building services engineers. This model is in effect a virtual prototype of the proposed building. Various proposals can be tested in the virtual model, resulting in an actual building whose vagaries are well understood before a brick is laid.

Sounds great on paper, but the reality is that this is still a long way off. What does the industry need to change in order to further this technology, which exists today but is grossly underexploited?

One problem is that the information in CAD is not suitable for direct export into BIM (this article explains well). IES are hoping to have moved one step closer. They have teamed up with AutoCAD Revit to enable BIM more easily.

What worries me slightly is the claim:

This direct link means the user can run a variety of analyses, without needing specialised skills, separate analysis packages or separate models for each analysis. Greatly increasing the quality and speed of the technical feedback this development enables building designers to examine the implications of alternative design strategies at the touch of a button and use the tools for sustainable design rather than just plant sizing.

A nice philosophy, but beware of putting software in the hands of those without specialised skills. You still need to know how to interpret results, even if you no longer need to be a master at 3D building modelling, something which Kathy Sierra* touched on here.

But does BIM actually reflect reality?  I don’t think so.  Do you know anyone who uses Hevacomp or IES to it’s full potential? Or are you more likely to come across engineers who use a mish-mash of pencil and paper, excel spreadsheets with a little bit of hevacomp and perhaps a little IES thrown in? This dissonance between what the software is capable of doing and what the user actually wants it to do is probably part of the problem.  Users see the software as too complex for what they want to do and so don’t want to overcome the hurdle of learning a new way of doing things.  There’s some great writing out there on this topic including this (old) article from Jeffrey Phillips :

 So the conundrum is, we’ve got to design for lowest common denominator in a user interface, while providing as much functionality as is necessary for the customer to be interested and excited in the application.  Unfortunately, the users of applications are rarely the buyers of applications, so we need a better method to get the proposed user interface in front of the actual users as often as possible.

So is the problem with the software or with the users?  It’s probably a bit of both.  Another Kathy Sierra’s post tries to explain some of the reasons from the users’ perspective.

A final word from Jeffrey Phillips again:

The real rationale is that requesting a new feature is costless. A customer or prospect can ask for features all day long. However, the user interface and its complexity has tremendous cost, since most people are lazy and don’t want to think – and good design should not require them to think overly much. In fact good design should lead a user to the right conclusions and actions without a lot of training or support help, regardless of the number of features. What people are really saying is: give me the features I want, but simplify the interface to make it even easier to use, so I don’t have to receive training, or support this application once we start using it.

This is a topic I’ll be returning to.  I hope BIM is the future, for lots of reasons, but for the minute there are hurdles to overcome…

*Sadly, Kathy hung up her blogging boots back in April 2007 after a nasty cyber incident involving death threats.  Yikes.  I still miss her blog…

  • IF Kite

    Hi Mel,

    How do you think Ecotect performs in relation to BIM? I’ve heard that architects like the technical feel to it but engineers (with a modelling background) question its relevance.

    And do you think that BIM will enable the holy grail of holistic building design?

    I

  • IF Kite

    Hi Mel,

    How do you think Ecotect performs in relation to BIM? I’ve heard that architects like the technical feel to it but engineers (with a modelling background) question its relevance.

    And do you think that BIM will enable the holy grail of holistic building design?

    I

  • http://www.fairsnape.wordpress.com martin

    Hi Mel, a few thoughts. BIM is fine – but we need the end user, the community and other stakeholders to be able to understand the model – and even ‘experience it’ – (see below) – as well as the designers, contractors and fm’s

    You may be interested in this timely link http://www.bdcnetwork.com/article/CA6500734.html?nid=2886

    Have you see the blog from Paul at ExtranetEvolution (http://www.extranetevolution.com/extranet_evolution/future/index.html )

    Finally are you aware of the Autodesk and Wikitecture work taking place in Second Life. Here not only can you model the building you can also (virtually) experience it from a end user view point – as Aloft Hotels did recently – I will sort some links for you – but if you want to experience it in Second Life drop me an email – always happy to show people around!

    BIM may be the future, but in may be in places like Second Life !

  • http://www.fairsnape.wordpress.com martin

    Hi Mel, a few thoughts. BIM is fine – but we need the end user, the community and other stakeholders to be able to understand the model – and even ‘experience it’ – (see below) – as well as the designers, contractors and fm’s

    You may be interested in this timely link http://www.bdcnetwork.com/article/CA6500734.html?nid=2886

    Have you see the blog from Paul at ExtranetEvolution (http://www.extranetevolution.com/extranet_evolution/future/index.html )

    Finally are you aware of the Autodesk and Wikitecture work taking place in Second Life. Here not only can you model the building you can also (virtually) experience it from a end user view point – as Aloft Hotels did recently – I will sort some links for you – but if you want to experience it in Second Life drop me an email – always happy to show people around!

    BIM may be the future, but in may be in places like Second Life !

  • Pingback: Elemental » BIM growth across the pond()

  • http://www.bizeesoftware.com/ Martin Bromley

    Interesting to see you mention Kathy Sierra – she gets mentioned so often on software-related blogs, but her reach clearly goes a lot further than I’d realized. I’ve long been a fan, and it’s a real shame how she stopped posting some time ago (not that I can blame her, given the weirdness that went on).

    Anyway, you’ve made some excellent points in this post. I spend a lot of my time trying to design software and I can attest to how difficult it is to strike a balance between making software simple enough for the first-time user to learn quickly, and usable and powerful enough for the longer-term user to not get frustrated or limited by it.

    The disconnect between the things that a software package can do, and the things that a typical user can do with it is often used as rational for making software that does those things and those things only. However, the problem I find is that, even if a “typical” user only uses 20% of the features of a software package, to some extent it’s often a different 20% to the other “typical” users. Which makes it very difficult to design software to present people with just the features they want… And the more features you add, the more you find that people don’t realize that a feature they want is actually there already.

    Incidentally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the various building modelling packages that you’ve used, if you’re ever looking for ideas for a future post.

  • http://www.bizeesoftware.com/ Martin Bromley

    Interesting to see you mention Kathy Sierra – she gets mentioned so often on software-related blogs, but her reach clearly goes a lot further than I’d realized. I’ve long been a fan, and it’s a real shame how she stopped posting some time ago (not that I can blame her, given the weirdness that went on).

    Anyway, you’ve made some excellent points in this post. I spend a lot of my time trying to design software and I can attest to how difficult it is to strike a balance between making software simple enough for the first-time user to learn quickly, and usable and powerful enough for the longer-term user to not get frustrated or limited by it.

    The disconnect between the things that a software package can do, and the things that a typical user can do with it is often used as rational for making software that does those things and those things only. However, the problem I find is that, even if a “typical” user only uses 20% of the features of a software package, to some extent it’s often a different 20% to the other “typical” users. Which makes it very difficult to design software to present people with just the features they want… And the more features you add, the more you find that people don’t realize that a feature they want is actually there already.

    Incidentally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the various building modelling packages that you’ve used, if you’re ever looking for ideas for a future post.