While the term 'interoperability' is commonly used to describe the ability of software applications to exchange data, it is also the ability to manage and communicate electronic product and project data between collaborating organisations and within individual establishments as well. In short, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Interoperability is the integration of the workflows and processes of each participant involved in the life cycle of a building. Inadequate interoperability however, is mainly due to the highly fragmented nature of the construction industry.
A common aspect of AEC projects is that building project teams rarely work together more than once. AEC Project teams are focused on the one-time delivery of a single, unique asset. Consequently, project delivery methods are optimised so that each participant incurs the lowest cost and exposure, thereby limiting the final outcome of the development. The costs of these inefficiencies are shouldered primarily by the owners, as they are the most affected by design and construction errors, broken schedules and budgets, and high operational and maintenance costs.
It is estimated that building owners and operators bear the larger part of interoperability costs (over 65%), which is by far the highest of any stakeholder.
The problem lies with the majority of owners not realising that they have the power to eliminate this waste and its associated cost liability. By mandating the sharing of project information, collaborative project delivery and the use of interoperable technology - building owners can drive the integration of the processes and business workflows of all project participants across all phases of the lifecycle.
Mandating BIM is a critical component to an owner’s pursuit for increased collaboration and project efficiency as well as the effective implementation of interoperable technologies and methodologies during each phase of the construction development process. For an owner to invest in BIM and implement such technology and methodology in their projects, additional value has to be created.
BIM is one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in the industry (many professionals tend to have their own interpretation, and they still see BIM mostly as a tool).
The primary difference between BIM and CAD is the “I” in BIM – “Information”. BIM is a data repository for building design, construction and maintenance information combined in one convenient model to share with all the stakeholders.
One term which is often related to BIM is Virtual Design and Construction (VDC), this is the use of multi-disciplinary (Architectural, Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing etc) performance models of design-construction projects. VDC being embraced by design and project teams who are looking to leverage BIM to the furthest degree.
BIM actually represents the product (the physical asset), organisation, and processes of the design-construction-operation team. It is a methodology involving the entire project team. A truly successful BIM or VDC implementation requires collaboration across all project teams.The dominance of VDC and BIM in the design and construction industry will “tip” when it becomes measurably more efficient, productive and profitable to use that project process over and above all others.
BIM potentially carries the most value for building owners and developers. What seems to be lacking however, is a comprehensive framework of evidence showing how that value is created in the context of the full lifecycle of a building.
Owners and developers, as the leaders of the AEC industry, are in the best position to push for BIM implementation and reap the majority of the resulting benefits. Operations phase of a development offers many areas where BIM could feasibly be utilised, technology is evolving and will progress to the degree required for widespread application.
The design process can be compared to the process of growing up, where the progression is gradual but continuous. Imagine having to start over with just a vague idea of what we had learned before at major stages of our development. Clearly the process would be slower and less efficient.
It is important to understand the different stages of the design process to appreciate potential problems. The traditional process uses a variety of software tools including schematic (basic layout only), 2D (plans and elevations), 3D (representation of plans and elevations in three dimensions) or BIM (3D models defining volumetric, material and ‘smart’ component detail).
The design process is commonly described as a progression through five stages, or, if BIM tools are used, one model with five coordination reviews.
The five stages are:
- spatial design – early or concept design intended as an overview of the project where design/cost alternatives can be considered;
- preliminary construction design – a model that defines basic quantities, areas and volumes;
- construction design – products to be used are defined in generic form;
- product design – specific products are defined; and
- maintenance design – also referred to as the ‘as-built’ design, representing how the project was actually built.
To successfully complete the design process, various professionals are involved, each creating his own design, which will impact on the others. Hence, when designs are transferred between the multiple disciplines, some data is lost or misinterpreted. At each phase of the design data then has to be re-entered, creating further possibilities for information loss. Designs also have to be co-ordinated in such a way to ensure that trades do not overlap with their products or services.
And, of course, design teams use different software tools to create their designs and those can be any combination of schematic, 2D, 3D and BIM. And many of these tools do not communicate with each other, necessitating manual interpretation and thereby creating a whole new source of potential errors. There is no simple calculation to ascertain potential cost implications as actual data is not readily available. What is certain is that even the most experienced professionals can get it wrong – which can prove very costly.
Integrated Project Delivery (IPD)
The good news is that there are processes and technologies that are primarily designed to tackle such a problem. However, these require a re-think on the way we work when using traditional methods.
Using BIM processes and tools, it is possible to complete the five key stages of design in a single model. Moving from one stage of design to the next in the BIM environment has been described as ‘model progression’ but the process is now more accurately defined as integrated project delivery (IPD). A term which can carry shared project wide risk and reqard ramifications as well.
IPD gives operatives the opportunity to work in a single environment with the objectives of improving efficiency and eliminating errors.
The American Institute of Architects defines IPD as a project delivery approach that “integrates people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that collaboratively harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to optimise project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste, and maximise efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication, and construction”. In all cases, integrated projects are uniquely distinguished by highly-effective collaboration among the owner, the prime designer, and the prime constructor, commencing at early design and continuing through to project handover.”
IPD uses a single BIM model throughout the five stages. The more advanced BIM tools have a greater capacity for interoperability, which is the ability to automatically transfer data between tools. This is achieved by the individual vendors developing communication links, or by using newly emerging openBIM standards such as the industry foundation class (IFC) protocols developed by buildingSMART (formerly the International Alliance for Interoperability – IAI).
IPD treats the five stages of the design process as the design progression of a single model:
- The spatial model, also known as the mass model, is a stage where the basic model defines the project in a series of zones, which can represent, for example rooms, floors, wings or entire buildings. each will have very high level quantity data defined by areas or volumes. As the model is ‘manipulated’ to create various design views, the quantities update automatically. By attaching equally high-level cost and planning data to the quantities, the resulting cost and construction time implications of the alternative designs can be easily determined. This significantly reduces the time taken to reach the best solution.
- The preliminary construction model defines basic quantities, areas and volumes. At this stage, with the design concept agreed, it is possible to start adding detail to the existing spatial model. The key products used in construction have not been defined, but are represented by elements that can follow the project programme and official specifications. At this stage, the model is used to conduct a ‘constructability analysis’ and to coordinate between trades. This model can be issued to structural and MeP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) consultants and if they are also using BIM technologies, the data can be transmitted directly or in 3D IFC format.
- The construction model defines products to be used in generic form, like steel partition. The progression continues in the same model and the construction elements are now presented as product types. The resulting automatic quantity take-offs take this additional detail into consideration. At this stage, the data, or IFC files, are returned from the structural and MeP consultants and integrated into the model for more detailed coordination and quantification. The drawings are produced automatically from the model to facilitate the application for building permits. Overall, the construction model increases the accuracy of the project, improves workflow and reduces RFIs (requests for information).
- The product model is the stage where the progression continues with specific products defined, for example, Paroc steel wall. In this stage, the actual components – and exact quantities – that will be required, supplied and erected by the constructors and product suppliers are indicated, recorded and archived in a single environment.
- The maintenance model, also referred to as the ‘as-built’ model, represents how the project was actually built. The product model is updated to reflect any changes during the construction phase and when construction is complete, the model is handed over to the facility managers who now have a complete record of the construction, which facilitates production of the detailed manuals required to implement maintenance programmes.
Ultimately, the building model will be able to run virtually in the design phase of the project. This virtual building modelling will empower the design and project team to make well-informed decisions about all of the building systems and their respective functionality. This analysis will only be possible once all of the different building models are united into a single model and the design team silos work cooperatively to maximize efficiency.
The Owner and AEC professional has an opportunity, with BIM and ultimately IPD, to add more value to the project team.
BIM and IPD are both important revolutions in the construction and building management industries, and organisations that can quickly become competent adopters will have an edge on the competition. With increased profitability, reduced professional risk, less waste, less rework and improved efficiency, AEC organisation can use BIM and IPD to create new revenue streams and add to profitability.
BIM will be the main method in which buildings and infrastructure are constructed and managed. It is crucial for owners, architects, engineers, contractors, facility management, operator organisations to become professional adopters of BIM methodology and embrace the associated cultural change to ensure the growth of our industry - leading to a much fuller suite of benefits being realised.
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