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Whether it’s clash detection, an expedited project delivery process, fewer change orders, increased collaboration or optimized MEP systems design, building information modeling continues to prove its worth.
After reading this article, you should be able to:
- Explain how building information modeling has become more appealing to engineers and how it enhances their ability to design and deliver more optimized MEP systems.
- Understand the benefits and limitations of different energy modeling software packages and their compatibility issues with BIM.
- Learn how architectural and engineering firms are creating and managing BIM content, and supporting a BIM workflow through training and infrastructure investment.
- Be informed of the latest technological updates to MEP BIM software and visualization programs.
Just like any new technology, building information modeling — even with its plethora of design, efficiency and collaboration benefits — is steadily progressing through the timely process of fuller market penetration. However, experts see the 3D modeling software as having recently reached a key stage in its global implementation.
“We’re really at the tipping point in seeing BIM being adopted by architectural firms, and downstream by engineering and contracting firms as well,” observes Sarah Hodges, senior industry marketing manager, Autodesk, Waltham, Mass. “Furthermore, BIM mandates are emerging everywhere as an approach to reducing energy consumption. It’s really transforming the industry.”
Not only are several federal agencies now requiring BIM on building projects — including the U.S. General Services Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Veteran Affairs — but a number of states, institutions and larger corporations are now adopting such standards. And although it’s a bit dated, McGraw-Hill reported that half the building and construction industry had already transitioned to BIM by 2009, marking a 75 percent jump in usage from 2007.
“The capability of the computer hardware, the power of the software and the Internet’s capabilities have all reached critical mass, and we can now model the largest building projects in the world,” states Huw Roberts, global marketing director, building and structural, Bentley, Exton, Penn. “The interest has been there since people recognized that it could be possible, and now that it is, everyone is getting on board as fast as they can.”
Others see the current global economic state as another driver as Monte Chapin, business process leader, North America, based out of Graphisoft’s Newton, Mass., office, points out, “owners, businesses, investors and developers looking for qualitative ways to get the most value for their money. With tighter construction budgets and tougher lending requirements, they are realizing that BIM provides a way to coordinate the work more effectively.”
Of course, BIM’s benefits over conventional, two-dimensional CAD drawings are well established — be it optimized designs, shortened construction schedules or reduced change orders. And with 3D visualization, owners can easily toggle through a number of aesthetic design options to choose the most appealing look. Meanwhile, building teams are using these same visualization capabilities to detect clashes, refine design parameters and ensure constructability.
“We can find and resolve such conflicts as we go along, as opposed to the traditional way of designing it, drafting it and then test fitting the design,” explains Gerald Hartford, PE, LEED AP, managing director, vice president, Syska Hennessy Group, San Diego, an early BIM adopter. “It’s a forced collaboration as we’re constantly checking and making sure that everything is working together. It makes designers think about the other disciplines the whole way along.”
While BIM isn’t necessarily a magic pill for creating great buildings, it significantly improves project delivery, better enabling building teams to deliver smarter, more energy-efficient solutions, which is particularly key in today’s market where sustainable building has essentially become the rule, as opposed to the exception.
Essentially, BIM’s impact has been so significant that Kevin McCormick, a senior associate, architecture group, Stantec, Butler, Penn., claims, “After you have been through a successful BIM project, no team member really wants to go back to the old way.”
Furthermore, early BIM adopters believe that BIM has given them a competitive advantage since the process of designing and building a facility, and professional productivity levels, have been so enhanced by the software.
BIM as a Mechanical Design Tool
While MEP firms have traditionally lagged behind architectural firms in the adoption of BIM, more and more engineering groups are coming on board, particularly as MEP versions of BIM software are catching up with their architectural and structural counterparts. And while architects more naturally think and design in 3D, McCormick explains that this is not necessarily the case with engineers. Consequently, their learning curve is taking more time.
At the same time, mechanical engineers are quickly discovering how BIM is making it easier to design energy-efficient, clash-free mechanical systems. For example, some MEP BIM software now features automatic sizing and system layout tolls to aid in the initial creation of the model. Then, once a basic system is designed, the software shows different duct and pipe routing solutions, as well as critical flow paths. Presented with these options, engineers can work various possibilities through the process of optimizing and refining these designs.
Taking a step back, McCormick points out that a project’s initial schematic design phase typically presents a limited budget for the MEP design, so BIM has been incredibly useful in its ability to extract information from the architectural model for early calculations. Whether it’s room, wall or glass areas, or volumes, it now takes only minutes to pull this data as opposed to the traditional, time-consuming process of manual building take-offs from the 2D CAD drawings.
As mentioned, another significant mechanical system design benefit is clash detection, which has become more relevant as reduced construction budgets are minimizing floor-to-floor heights, while architectural design trends are pushing for higher ceilings, the upshot being less room for mechanical piping, ducts and equipment.
With the traditional 2D workflow, the process of reviewing section drawings for conflicts is extremely tedious and time consuming. And for those that are missed, managing those conflicts on the jobsite is a much more costly proposition. On the other hand, “3D view allows our designers to zoom through the model to determine where systems can fit and then provide feedback to other team members on potential conflicts so that they can be addressed as soon as possible, in real time,” explains McCormick. “This way the routing of ductwork, piping, conduit and other services are well coordinated during the design phase.”
Stantec’s designers also rely on BIM for its automated quality control checks to ensure that all the notes embedded in the drawings are also displayed in the legend, and vice versa, before the drawings are sent out.
Downstream, mechanical contractors are embracing BIM’s ability — albeit not yet seamless — to send out fabrication orders directly from the model.
“In the 2D world we never saw shop drawings which show the ductwork and sheet metal. But now the contractors are sending us such models, so we can see that our design models and their fabrication models are identical,” relates Hartford.
Similarly, James Barrett, national director, integrated building solutions, Turner Construction Company, New York, points out this direct-to-fabrication capability is helping reduce waste materials, rework and inefficient use of field labor.
While BIM manufacturers openly admit that this function isn’t fully up to speed just yet, it is an R&D priority.
“It’s clearly one of our objectives to enable this, but different fabricators use different equipment and systems and there’re different standards in different parts of the world; it’s a pretty complex issue,” explains Bentley’s Roberts.
Similarly, the energy modeling software industry is struggling both with compatibility issues and developing one solution that does it all.
“We have to create a heating/cooling load model, we have to create an energy code compliance model and we have to create the energy model itself. There isn’t one suite of software that does all of those three things well,” laments Hartford.
And while the importing and exporting of data between an individual manufacturer’s software solutions is pretty much seamless, the process often doesn’t run as smoothly when interfacing with outside products.
“One shouldn’t assume that any model can be imported into an analysis software and automatically and immediately be used for analysis,” confirms Barrett.
Similarly, McCormick sees interoperability with energy modeling software — and the actual functionality of these programs — as falling short of their marketing hype.
“The process does work fairly well for simple building types with straightforward systems, but those types of buildings are rare in high-performance building design that involves energy modeling,” he notes. “Fortunately, there has been a lot of development in the last year, and soon the process should become a lot closer to what is needed from a design professional perspective.”
In the meantime, the Stantec designer does acknowledge that BIM improves workflow, even if data extracted from the models needs to be entered manually into third-party energy modeling programs.
Essentially, there’s a handful of energy modelers to choose from, each with its own strengths, so engineers tend to mix and match based upon a project’s needs. For example, Turner takes a “software agnostic” approach, so one project may call for Autodesk’s Ecotect and Green Building Studio, while another could be a good beta project for Autodesk’s Project Vasari, which is an integrated conceptual modeling and energy analysis software currently under development in Autodesk Labs.
At the same time, Barrett admits that his team is partial to Integrated Environmental Solutions’ suite of products based upon its ability to flush out more detail for the MEP equipment and components, as opposed to a more conceptual representation. “The specific performance of individual building systems is important to incorporate into one’s analysis as there is wide variability in the operation of individual elements. The result of this more detailed analysis is a better reflection of actual future performance of the MEP systems,” he explains.
Another firm, the Chicago-based M/E outfit, Environmental Systems Design, builds its own thermal model — incorporating materials, thermal construction data and internal load parameters — and then inputs the model into different analysis tools to perform environmental studies, HVAC load calculations, HVAC diagramming, energy analysis and CFD analysis.
“The difficulty in doing this is that some of the software requires quite a bit of tinkering in order to transfer the data correctly,” admits David P. Callan, PE, LEED AP, CEM, HBDP, ESD senior vice president. “However, once you’ve figured out your workflow, it is much easier to repeat in the future.”
Beyond Autodesk and IES offerings, eQUEST is based on the U.S. Department of Energy’s original DOE-2 energy simulation program and, according to Callan, is a time-tested and relatively intuitive program for the experienced engineer. Meanwhile, EnergyPlus, another DOE program, is a sophisticated calculation engine which utilizes a heat balance-based solution to crunch out HVAC loads and energy analysis.
A couple of additional tools include Graphisoft’s EcoDesigner and Bentley’s AECOsim Energy Simulator. While the programs work best with each company’s own products, they do support standard exchange file formats, most notably gbXML, considered to be the most robust standard for data transfer for BIM energy modeling.
According to Graphisoft’s Chapin, “EcoDesigner performs energy-use results on early assumptive design data such as location, building occupancy use, climate, building envelope and energy systems, and it provides an early broad view of how changes in design elements impact the energy cost.”
By presenting different “what if” scenarios, the software helps engineers make tweak designs early in the project when the vast majority of sustainability decisions are being made.
With Bentley’s latest offering, based upon EnergyPlus, the company is aiming to provide a robust simulator for more rigorous engineering analysis, explains Drew Crawley, director for building performance products, Bentley, Washington, D.C. “With AECOsim Energy Simulator, engineers can do the energy analysis, energy cost calculations, equipment sizing, loads and LEED compliance simulations all in one tool.”
While modeling products have come a long way and will continue to develop, Callan points out that there are simply too many educated assumptions to be made when simulating the performance of every energy-consuming system in a building, so the idea of a “press one button” solution to predict the energy performance of a building with any confidence is simply not realistic.
Managing the BIM Workflow
While a number of issues surround infrastructure, hardware, software, training and other resources required to optimally support BIM projects, perhaps one of the more time-consuming ones is making up for the lack of BIM object data currently available for MEP systems and components.
On the one hand, there are a few databases of resources out there. For example, Autodesk’s SEEK (http://seek.autodesk.com) provides easy access to content from building product manufacturers, RevitCity is a similar tool (www.revitcity.com); McGraw-Hill Construction Sweets Network (http://construction.com/BIM/) and Reed Construction Data (http://smartbim.reedconstructiondata.com/) also offer databases; and Arcat (http://www.arcat.com/bim/divs04/bim_objects.shtml) has a free library of BIM objects.
However, with literally hundreds of thousands of building product companies attempting to put out BIM data, combined with varying levels of standardization, it’s pretty much hit-and-miss when architects and engineers are seeking a certain quality of BIM content to populate their models.
“Right now if you want it done right, you need to do it yourself,” states Callan. “Additionally, each engineer needs to decide which parameters will be included in their workflow and populate their shared parameters accordingly.”
Similarly, Hartford prefers to develop BIM content in-house to better reflect Syska’s design approach and expertise. While there are third-party BIM object content creators out there, in addition to the manufacturers, Hartford points out that they are rarely engineers and often don’t possess a true technical understanding of the equipment and systems they are modeling.
“We have a dedicated team in place to create certain content, as necessary. We have never purchased content as we can do it better and cheaper internally,” he explains.
In a similar vein, Turner stores its 300+ global BIM projects on a central server, from which folks working on current projects can capture 3D geometry and data for MEP systems at both fabrication and as-built levels. “These models typically include a high level of detail down to specific equipment, valves, and even hangers and support steel. This vast library represents a wealth of knowledge that is a competitive advantage and allows us to dramatically increase the value we can add to a project,” relates Barrett.
While HOK also generates some of its own BIM object data, the fact that the firm is so large and diverse has made the task of managing such a library a bit too much to handle in house. Consequently, the firm often contracts with external consultants to create content according to HOK’s standards and specifications, says James Vandezande, AIA, principal, director, firm-wide BIM, HOK, New York. More recently, HOK has started engaging firms such as Allied Technical Services, a technical plumbing specification information service, to build high quality content based on manufacturers’ products.
Meanwhile, Stantec has come up with its own approach, sometimes accessing its in-house created “building block families” of content, and in other cases, when more unique objects are required, building upon manufacturer’s content. At the same time, McCormick has found that manufacturer-provided content can slow down its models if the file size is too big, or it may not present well on drawings if it wasn’t built in a way to work with Stantec’s standard template.
Likewise, the global engineering and design consultancy, Atkins, is having the same experience with manufacturer-provided content, often finding it much too detailed to incorporate directly into their models. “We try to utilize manufactured supplied content, but we put it through a quality control process where we tend to simplify the geometry,” explains Patrick H. Davis, assoc. AIA, manager of virtual design and construction, buildings, based in Atkin’s Tampa, Fla. office. “We don’t need to see items such as cooling fins, bolt heads, grills, etc. However, we do require metadata since more and more of our projects have some kind of O&M deliverable, so it seems like we spend more time making sure this is correct over the geometry.”
Moving on to infrastructure issues, while the manufacturers will claim that the hardware required to run their software is not significant, most design firms beg to differ.
“The IT infrastructure and computer requirements are huge, and you have to convince your corporate and IT people that more is required than what the software box says,” reports Hartford.
Syska’s current computer set-up includes a Xeon core processor, 16 gigaRAM, 64-bit operating systems, Windows 7 Professional and 280 gigabytes of hardrive with high-quality graphic cards.
Similarly, HOK has invested quite a bit in its IT infrastructure to fully connect all its offices with the latest workstations. In addition, the firm is beginning to implement Citrix XenApp, which is a virtualization platform enabling both staff and internal consultants to work on large datasets from any location.
As firms try and figure out the extent to which their infrastructure and workstations need to be upgraded to optimally support a BIM workflow, Callan points out that a great deal has been written and shared by design and construction professionals and hardware vendors, so newer BIM adopters can definitely benefit from others’ experience.
Recognizing the economic crunch that most design firms are dealing with — particularly smaller ones, Graphisoft offers BIM Server technology, which comes with its ArchiCAD 15 software, to leverage a lower total cost of ownership and better ROI. But perhaps most significant is the advanced technology which the server utilizes to enable more streamlined project communication and network flow.
“Unlike file-based sharing solutions that behave like an FTP — with significant hardware, bandwidth and IT investment and management — the BIM Server with Delta-Server technology simply manages changes between the central file and local cache, representing and thousand-fold decrease in network traffic and allowing members of a collaborative team to come together and work on a single project in real time,” says Chapin.
Of course, another significant issue is providing staff with technical support and establishing proper workflows to competently work in BIM.
“After many years of leading the industry in the use of BIM, we have found that the key to its success has less to do with the specific software than establishing pre-defined workflows and processes and standards around the quality of the deliverables,” explains Barrett.
In addition to developing its own standard project templates, Turner also assigns a BIM engineer to each project to manage the BIM process. Yet still the individual level, much training and support is also required.
“Training is the first and most often neglected piece of the BIM support program,” acknowledges Davis. “Many people believe that an experienced designer or CAD Technician who has been using AutoCAD can ‘pick-it-up’ as they go. And while that might be true for learning how to utilize commands, staff needs to be taught the BIM process, which is different from CAD, particularly when working in a multidiscipline collaborative environment.”
In order to deal with this reality, Stantec has created detailed training courses, specific to the firm’s workflow, in order to bring designers up to speed on software as well as the thought process behind the BIM workflow.
Meanwhile, HOK uses a combination of dedicated training consultants, Web-based video training, best practice documentation and internal specialty training. Furthermore, some of the firm’s offices are using a skills assessment program to better target training needs.
Atkins has also found skills evaluation to be a useful tool. In particular, the firm uses Knowledge Smart to test individuals and teams and then output performance metrics. “This allows us to develop skill metrics and enables more targeted skills-based training as well as evaluating the effectiveness of the training provided,” says Davis.
BIM in Action
Taking a look at some specific instances where BIM significantly impacted engineering designs, and most importantly — the bottom line, HOK’s use of BIM for the design of the new 351,000-square-foot Consolidated Forensic Lab in Washington, D.C., effectively shortened the project schedule by a half a year, reduced project costs by 19 percent and achieved a project energy reduction of 26 percent below ASHRAE 90.1, reports Vandezande.
Similarly, an interior fit-out for HOK’s new office in Bryant Park, which involved fitting a complex MEP design into a somewhat limited ceiling space, took advantage of laser scanning the existing conditions into the BIM model. Working with this accurate and visual information, HOK and the engineer, WSP Flack + Kurtz successfully executed the design and installation ahead of schedule, with only six RFIs and zero change orders, and a LEED-CI Platinum certification to boot.
Getting into some more details, a recent ESD renovation project for a major Chicago institution involved the detailed modeling of existing conduit, ductwork and lighting equipment. With the ability to go into the model and see all conduit location, heights and bends, for example, bidding contractors were able to determine which equipment could be reused, thereby enabling them to come in with lower bids within a short time frame. “The project manager was more than satisfied with this result, knowing that the plans and model were a clear representation of the scope of work. As a testament to be value of sharing information accurately and early, there were no RFIs or change order requests for this project,” relates Callan.
In another BIM success story, ESD was able to run some very precise and calibrated energy model models for five buildings and a central plant on a campus in suburban Chicago. As opposed to the traditional approach where engineers develop their energy models in silos, ESD employed a parallel path strategy and collected valuable data and input while surveying and meeting with building engineers.
“With this approach, we were able to vastly improve the schedule and enable our engineers to focus more time on engineering,” recalls Callan. “More than $1 million dollars in annual energy savings were identified and recommended. As a result of this project, not only were strategies identified to help reduce the energy use on this campus, but a significantly better holistic understanding of the campus was developed by engineers and managers.”
Another case of squeezing new MEP systems into close quarters was facilitated by BIM during the renovation of the Hebrew Union College Klau library in Cincinnati. According to KLH Engineers, Revit enabled the team to quickly and accurately route its systems into tight spaces above the book stacks and avoid clashes which could have led to costly schedule delays.
To protect the library’s vast collection of rare books, precise humidity and temperature control had to be achieved with energy efficiency in mind. Thanks to Revit MEP, the engineers were able to conduct energy analyses which enabled them to optimize the mechanical design, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in operating costs.
Checking in with the industry’s latest MEP-related BIM offerings — whether it’s Autodesk’s Revit MEP 2012 software, Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD 15 MEP Modeler or Bentley’s AECOsim building designer — engineers are finding increasing functionality and ease of use with these ever-improving programs.
For example, with Revit’s latest update, MEP engineers can take advantage of an enhanced sloped piping tool, and a check duct and pipe systems commands which alert the user if a model has open-ended ducts or pipes. As for high-quality renderings, Autodesk’s 3ds Max Design 2012 brings new rendering toolsets, better iterative workflows and an accelerated graphics core. Integrating more directly with the BIM model is Autodesk’s Showcase 2012, a real-time rendering/presentation tool, which cuts out the rendering enhancement and fine-tuning work of 3ds Max by quickly enabling the building team to view their models as 3D visualizations.
Meanwhile, Graphisoft MEP enhancements include a new renovation palette, 64-bit support for the Mac OS and parametric object library improvements. Otherwise, engineers can find straight segments of HVAC ducts and pipes in the software’s MEP toolbox, as well as transitions, junctions and in-line elements to connect MEP components, and equipment and terminals for intake and output connections.
Graphisoft has also come out with a free BIMx Viewer application, which allows users to view 3D models on their iPad or iPhone without professional authoring software, which can come in handy when referencing or presenting models to clients and building owners onsite.
Perhaps most noteworthy in terms of Bentley’s latest offerings is the way in which the AECOsim family of products work together to provide seamless BIM design, energy simulation and LEED compliance assistance. For example, with the Compliance Manager, this Web-based service keeps track of LEED points and enables building teams to electronically transmit LEED data to the U.S. Green Building Council, which is attracting some industry attention.
The Future of BIM
There is no doubt that BIM’s future is bright as more and more design and building professionals experience its benefits, first-hand.
“The process of being able to simulate your design before you have to build it gives you so much more understanding about what that design in going to achieve whether its in energy use, constructability, cost, maintenance or comfort. Everyone seems to get this instantly; it’s not a secret,” confirms Roberts.
But the way in which BIM is enhancing project collaboration is really quite remarkable.
“Communication is key to the success of any venture and in the building industry, and visual sketches or images are the best form of communication,” explains Vandezande. “Giving a building owner or user, who isn’t necessarily an expert in reading plan drawings, a 3D view of a room or a part of the building is allowing for much better feedback and ultimate satisfaction with the final product.”
Barbara Horwitz-Bennett is a seasoned trade journalist, who actively covers the architectural and building industry, and contributes regularly to several industry publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.BHBennett.com.
One of the bigger buzzes in the A/E/C world of late as been the “cloud,” but just how beneficial can cloud computing/infrastructure-as-a-service capabilities be for BIM users?
On the one hand, because cloud-based programs and applications don’t need to be installed and configured on one’s desktop, they are much easier to access and don’t take up valuable storage space. In addition, users can access these programs remotely and aren’t limited to their workstations.
“If we can off-load some of this software people’s computers to the cloud, it can be beneficial as some of these applications do take time and memory to run,” explains Drew Crawley, director for building performance products, Bentley, Washington, D.C.
One Bentley program that works particularly well in the cloud is its ProjectWise project information service, which is widely used in the industry.
Similarly, a number of Autodesk applications can now be accessed from the cloud — such as Revit Conceptual Energy Analysis and Green Building Studio with 30GB of storage space — so they don’t have to divert processing power which can disrupt the BIM workflow.
At the same time, Crawley’s colleague, Huw Roberts, global marketing director, building and structural, Bentley, Exton, Penn., points out that all of the company’s BIM cloud offerings are still available as desktop software because the cloud isn’t always ideal for everyone, in every case.
Gerald Hartford, PE, LEED AP, managing director, vice president, Syska Hennessy Group, San Diego, agrees and points out that such mobile applications are still limited by the hardware usually required to effectively operate some BIM programs.
Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD 15 MEP Modeler enables the building team to easily view MEP equipment placement from different angles and perspectives. Image courtesy of GRAPHISOFT.
After KLH Engineers optimized the mechanical design for a renovation of Hebrew Union College Klau library in Cincinnati, realistic renderings of the space aided in the visualization and construction of the updated library. Images courtesy of Autodesk/KLH ENGINEERS.
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