Utilizing BIM for Sustainable Architecture

An analysis and continuation of my graduate thesis at the University of Texas at Austin.

BIM Impacts on Stakeholder Collaboration & Workflows

In this section I examine how BIM can improve stakeholder relationships and the information workflows throughout the design and construction process.  Two major conclusions are discussed:  1) collaboration can happen earlier in the design process and new relationships can solidify faster with the use of BIM and 2) the information database that evolves from the BIM model can be used to integrate “expert” and “non-expert” knowledge.

Similar to addressing issues of cost and ‘green’ design; collaboration also relies on both social and technological means.  From a social perspective, BIM encourages an integrated design and construction process, which relies on early collaboration between stakeholders and specifically members of the design team.   This process is commonly referred to as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD).  Through the utilization of BIM tools, an IPD approach integrates participants, building systems, and business practices into a process which benefits from the knowledge of everyone involved to optimize the intended results of the project.[96] This stands in contrast to conventional building industry practices where each group operates in disjointed and fragmented relationships – coordination typically doesn’t happen until there is a problem.  A BIM process, however, demands early input from building trades because it is difficult to limit design information in a parametric model and linked database.

One primary obstacle to IPD is incompatible software, which is a good example of the technological impacts on collaboration.  Compatibility between stakeholders doesn’t require that all members of the design team need to be using the same vendor’s software platform (in fact, I would argue that this is a poor strategy since it does not emphasize choosing the ‘right tool for the right job’), but it does require that various platforms can exchange necessary information data via common file formats.  In response to this obstacle, one potential solution has been the adoption of the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC). This nonproprietary open source standard began development in the mid 1990s as a product data model allowing for compatibility between AEC software tools for the full lifecycle of a building project.[97] For example, if a particular software program is IFC compatible, it should be able to import/export relevant information from a BIM digital file and represent the data for a particular industry use (i.e. architecture, engineering, construction…etc).  The benefits of IFC are far from being fully realized since there is limited adoption by major proprietary BIM software developers.  In the case of Autodesk, it has been deemed a waste of time and money to invest in helping develop a common exchange file format (especially when the company already controls a majority of the building industry market).[98] Whether proprietary software developers dominate the BIM market or common exchange formats become commonplace – the demand for compatibility, interoperability, and standardization is where the building industry is moving.

The issues of compatibility and interoperability with BIM are not necessarily equal for all AEC groups.  Much of the attention on BIM has been oriented towards larger companies.  In the case of affordable and sustainable housing development, however, the audience is small-scale and generally less ‘high-tech.’  Therefore, introducing BIM in this context represents a different challenge – instead of focusing on exchanging information between BIM platforms, the goal becomes extracting BIM information for “low-capacity” software.  By this, I mean any software that is less capable of managing and associating building design information.  Examples of this might include programs such as Microsoft Excel, Word, and Adobe Acrobat.  Based on my interviews with local stakeholders in Austin, these file formats were the common exchange formats used for affordable and sustainable housing.  In addition, most communication is done via emails, phone calls, or in-person meetings.

Some interviewees thought that introducing sophisticated BIM software for housing projects would be unnecessary and could potentially make workflows more complicated rather than less.  This sentiment has been expressed particularly by Jerry Laiserin who is a consultant for AEC/O businesses and considered one of the fathers of the BIM movement.  Laiserin makes the argument that although BIM is a powerful tool for documentation and design, its use is not justified for all projects.  He explains how this is determined by two categories: building-centric and client-centric.  The building-centric reason has to do with the size, complexity, and flexibility of the project.  He uses the typical strip-mall as an example of a standard, uniform and minimal design building type that would not benefit from the use of BIM.  While there are some “design” benefits that could be gained from using a BIM tool, a greater benefit would be to make substantial improvements to strip-mall development patterns (which is the real harm from a sustainability perspective), which would be better addressed by urban planning and building codes.  The client-centric category has to do with the type and capacity of the building client.  Laiserin states that a significant proportion of clients lack the management capacity and software technology to benefit from complex data-rich models produced by BIM technology.[99]

While I generally agree with Laiserin’s client-centric and building-centric arguments, I feel that he fails to acknowledge some key points.  From the building-centric perspective, housing development may be seen as a minimal design/documentation process, but this is perhaps a result of conventional design and construction practices.  As discussed in the previous section, BIM need not be limited only to design/documentation, but it can also be used to demonstrate code compliance and energy performance.  Moreover, the information from the BIM model can be used for the entire life-cycle of the project and to manage data for many projects within an urban environment.  A house by itself may not be complex, but a network of housing connected to urban infrastructure is entirely different.

The client-centric perspective also represented some misunderstood complexity.  Whereas perhaps most small-scale projects involve a single client stakeholder interest, this is certainly not the case with the AFI.  GNDC is the owner/developer, but the projects are managed by ACDDC and designed with the help of architecture students and local architects.  Due to the goals of the initiative emphasizing affordability and sustainability, the CoA is more involved with the design and construction process compared to typical housing development, which is not driven to achieve a higher Green Building Program (GBP) star rating and S.M.A.R.T. Housing requirements.  As described in the previous section, local governments could use BIM as a management tool in addition to providing template/training services to qualifying developers.  It becomes quickly apparent that the social and political complexity between these stakeholder relationships is unique and could very well justify the use of BIM despite not being justified by building typological criteria.

To be clear, I do not anticipate that stakeholders involved in affordable and sustainable housing will someday utilize the same type/extent of BIM collaboration as larger AEC firms on complex projects, however, I do anticipate a hybrid approach to be used.  In other words, in the near future BIM technology could be used by a majority of residential architects and contractors – if not also residential contractors and local city governments – but the technology will not be used in the same way and especially not the way it is currently being marketed.  At present, BIM tools are oriented towards specific professions in the building industry to address workflow requirements within each group.  While this may be adequate in addressing current building processes, it intentionally or unintentionally ignores stakeholder relationships and the communication that occurs between them – especially those outside the AEC industry.  The issue that becomes apparent when the application of BIM is expanded beyond the building professions is that there is a lack of common understanding and accessible interfaces.  Smith & Tardif explain:

Every stakeholder in the building life cycle has a need to view building information from his or her own perspective, which means that each stakeholder represents an interface requirement.  This is one of the most challenging obstacles to sharing building information, since so few information interfaces exist.[100]

The challenge, therefore, is not expecting that everyone understand how to use BIM tools, but instead figuring out how to communicate the data that BIM can leverage through a relatable user interface to each stakeholder group.  An interesting experiment that is currently being done by Autodesk involves developing a web-based social networking interface to communicate between software tools and people on projects.  Clearly, the company recognizes the demand for including a variety of stakeholders, but so far the interface is uniform for all groups.  The next step might be to customize each interface based on stakeholder needs.  A step beyond that (and probably beyond the reach of any particular BIM software vendor) is to address the language of communication with relation to project development.  While there is a good deal of common language between AEC groups, identical terminologies and language used within the building industry do not necessarily translate when interpreted by ‘outside’ stakeholders (i.e. non-profits, city governments, financial institutions, local residents…etc).

Interesting research done by Dammann & Elle (2006) investigated the potential for establishing a common language for ‘green’ design by analyzing the context of the Danish building sector.[101] For example, the term “sustainable design” can mean one thing to an architect, but mean something very different to a local resident in the community.  (I witnessed a fitting example of this issue recently, where students were presenting their alley flat designs to board members of the Clarksville Community Development Corporation (CCDC), and one design received similar comments by two board members as being a “bungalow” but the connotations associated with that term had completely opposite meanings.)

The challenge has historically been to trying to translate the meaning of these important terms to mitigate miscommunication while improving group relationships.  The authors identified four “technological frames” (W.E. Bijker, 1995) which correlated to four differing understandings, goals, and perspectives of ‘green’ design:

  1. public-relations frame
  2. scientific frame
  3. aesthetic-holistic frame
  4. lay-person sensualist frame

Needless to say, there were both areas of consensus and conflict.  Based on the evidence, the authors concluded that the idea of creating a common indicator language that would ensure consensus between groups is not likely to happen in the near future.  Dammann & Elle propose three likely scenarios that may transpire in the future, but one in particular – titled “Science goes public” – could be pursued in tandem with future BIM development.  The concept involves creating tiers or levels of indicator language aggregation that would be used relative to each technological frame.  In other words, the language used in Austin Energy’s Green Building Program, for example, might have specific sections for each anticipated user group (architect, lay-person, city officials…etc).  If the CoA were to mandate BIM usage, including the development of templates, this multi-tiered language could be included in specific user templates.  Alternatively, a possible scenario not proposed by Dammann and Elle might completely take the form of visual communication methods.  In this case, BIM becomes an asset for communicating information through visualization.  The same model information that is used for design and construction can be expanded to providing a communication medium that is devoid of confusing jargon.  (Although, this would be limited to design-specific items and would not necessarily be useful for all communication intents).

In summary, the use of BIM allows for improvement opportunities in areas of affordability, sustainability, and stakeholder relationships/workflows.  The key to ensuring success in these areas is to view the BIM process and software technology as having broader uses and implications than how it is currently being used or marketed.  BIM needs to be viewed and utilized by all participant stakeholders as an integral part of design (renderings, fabrication, documentation, energy analysis, codification, and quantification), communication, and social networking.  The following chapter outlines specific recommendations for each relevant stakeholder group including how to engage with BIM as both a technology and process.  These recommendations are intended to foster a new kind of discourse about how BIM is currently being used and how it might be used in the future to improve affordable/sustainable housing development.


[96] The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and AIA California Council. Integrated Project Delivery: A Guide. Version 1, 2007.

[97] Eastman, Charles M., et al. Bim Handbook : A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers, and Contractors. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2008. 67-84.

[98] Astroth, Joe.  Vice President Worldwide Learning & Education, Autodesk, Inc., Informal meeting attended by Justin Dowhower, Austin, TX, 8 July 2009.

[99] The LaiserinLetter. “Designer’s BIM: Vectorworks Architect keeps design at the center of BIM process.” Jerry Laiserin. 15 March 2010. <http://www.laiserin.com/features/issue26/feature01.pdf&gt; (March 2010).

[100] Smith, Dana K., and Michael Tardif. Building Information Modeling: A Strategic Implementation Guide for Architects, Engineers, Constructors, and Real Estate Asset Managers. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009. 146.

[101] Dammann, Sven and Moren Elle. “Environmental Indicators: establishing a common language for green building.” Building Research & Information 34 (4), (Jul-Aug 2006): 387-404.

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2 Responses to “BIM Impacts on Stakeholder Collaboration & Workflows”

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