BIM decisions

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Selecting the right bim package is key to getting the most out of 3D-modelling software

You’d have had to have buried your head in the sand to miss all the talk about bim this year. 2011 has been the year that bim has finally threatened to go mainstream, thanks in no small part to government construction adviser Paul Morell who is making bim a mandatory part of the procurement process.

Most of us now know that bim stands for building information modelling. Many of us also know — theoretically — what that means. But for most architects the biggest problem with bim is converting theory into practice. It involves time, heavy investment and a commitment from various other contractors to make it work. And that’s before you even start to think about the training involved.

Morell has made a number of comments to the effect that small practices will not be edged out of competition by their inability to make a big investment in expensive software. But let’s be honest: changing your processes, upgrading your hardware and buying new software is expensive, often scarily so.

A Bentley Bim for Architecture licence, which includes Microstation and Bentley Architecture, costs £3,375 plus an additional £825 for an annual subscription for updates and support, while the standalone price for Autodesk’s Revit Architecture Suite is currently around £5,700. Vendors can usually offer deals at a reduced price and network licences can help you to save money.

Basic training starts at around £300 per person per day.

Revit in particular produces very large files — you could need as much as 8GB of ram installed on each workstation to ensure you can always open them. Setting up a bim-ready workstation will cost in the region of £1,500.

However, most of the practices that have begun to dabble in bim report that they’re already starting to see some benefits from the investment, even if their early experiences haven’t quite turned them into bim evangelists yet.

Glasgow practice Holmes Partnership sent its staff on their first training course in January of this year after purchasing Autodesk’s Revit software package. Its first bim project, a 2,500sq m primary school for Lanarkshire Council, is due to start on site this month.

“It’s a big change from cad,” says architect Ryan Holmes. “The financial outlay at the beginning is pretty high. You’re talking a couple of thousand per machine. Also the spec for the computers is slightly more than the standard cad station.

“But we’ve actually noticed an improvement already — especially for co-ordination with our M&E engineer. In the past we’d have had to spend a lot of time looking at 2D drawings to try and eliminate clashes.

“A lot of practices are wary of Revit being an interference with design; they see it as more of a production tool. We’ve been using Google Sketchup for a long time now, and it’s good for quick bid submissions or competitions, so I think going forward we need to get to grips a bit more with Revit before we deploy it earlier in the design process,” he adds.

Choosing the right software is one of the most bewildering steps for any practice embarking on bim. Autodesk is extremely efficient at marketing its products, but that doesn’t mean that Revit is the right option for you. For Microstation users, Bentley Architecture may feel like a more gentle way in to bim, but you will still need training. It’s worth taking the time to investigate companies like Tekla or Graphisoft’s Archicad to see what they can offer.

Robert Jones, systems manager for Bentley Architecture users JM Architects, explains that un-learning what you already know from your cad training can be as much of a challenge as learning how to use the new software.

Most practices that have begun to dabble in bim are starting to see benefits

“Cad users are entrenched in how they’ve been taught to draft and put drawings together,” he says. “You can’t just expect users to pick up new methods as they go along.”

“We’re not using every single bim tool yet, but we’re at the point where bim is productive, especially at the early design stages. It takes about two weeks for a new user with some informal tuition to stop asking millions of ‘how to’ questions and start producing something useful.”
It often helps to see software being used live. It’s with this in mind that BD is supporting the first Bim Show Live, being held at London’s Business Design Centre on November 1. This will give attendees the opportunity to see different software packages being used across various stages of the design process and discuss the challenges of adoption with some of the UK’s leading bim exponents.

Among them is HOK’s David Light, who will be leading a seminar on how to implement bim in the early stages of the design process. Before joining HOK, Light worked for a number of small practices around Hampshire and is adamant that bim should not be left to the large practices.
“Bim is not an elitist thing,” he says. “If you invest in the technology and you have the right mindset, a small practice can actually behave like a big practice because it allows you to deliver a lot more with fewer people.

“Within HOK we’ve been using bim now since about 2006, and we’ve used it on various different levels of project — everything from early concept model through to masterplanning and complete coordinated design. A lot of people don’t know where to start so it seems like a lot of sense to try and explain how we are using it.”

Whatever you choose, bim should help you develop a better workflow model, rather than force you to abandon everything you know about designing buildings; 3D software is not a replacement for the skill, experience and design ability of a flesh and blood architect. Yet.

Top five tips for a bim beginner

1 Knowledge is key to realising a successful bim programme so before you choose any software read up on the various options (blogs are very useful for this - avoid anything issued by the software vendors to begin with) and question existing users via LinkedIn or Twitter.

2 Software is a serious investment so make sure you get a proper demonstration before you choose and get the most out of the package with proper training - this should also help improve your workflow and save time.

3 Don’t run before you can walk - choose a relatively simple project to start with and make sure there are clear boundaries set so that everyone understands how much of the project is your responsibility.

4 Make sure that you have an agreement with your contractors to use the same platform before you start working. Also be aware of software redundancies — if you’re using Revit 2011 and they’re using Revit 2010 you won’t be able to work on the same documents. Bentley rarely changes its file types.

5 Don’t let the software tell you what to do or dominate your approach to design. At its heart bim is about processes, not software, but it’s easy to be dazzled by what the various packages can do.


Attend BIM Show Live on the 1 November at the Business Design Centre, London. Click here to book your place


Readers' comments (1)

  • Currently looking at upgrading from Vectorworks 11 to Vectorworks Architect 2012... anyone have any experience of Vectorworks with BIM?

    Its certainly a lot cheaper than Revit, ArchiCAD and Microstation, retailing at around £1800. Is it good value?

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