Utilizing BIM for Sustainable Architecture

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

Chapter 7: Future Research

This thesis focuses on adapting BIM for improving affordable and sustainable infill housing development.  Unfortunately, the issues surrounding BIM, affordable housing, and sustainable development could each be a thesis topic in and of themselves and are difficult to research collectively in depth.  My intent is that this research may continue to develop and evolve as social and technological changes occur with regard to BIM and affordable/sustainable housing.  In the following paragraphs, I outline seven potential topics of inquiry for future research.

First, an issue which I mentioned in chapter 5 involved comparing site built construction with pre-fabricated and/or modular construction to offset hard costs and increase housing affordability.  In the case of the AFI, these strategies have been compared during the bidding phase for a single project which utilized a non-BIM workflow and it was determined (at the time) that pre-fabrication or modular construction was not economically feasible.  A potential area of research could be to investigate the impact a BIM workflow would have on a pre-fabricated or modular design in terms of overall construction costs.  It might be determined that the only way to make pre-fabrication or modular construction affordable (BIM or not), is to increase the scale of production.  A related and possible continuation of this research topic would be to explore the benefits of BIM versus CAD workflows for a multi-unit development.  This concept has been envisioned as a possible strategy for scaling-up the AFI, but it has yet to be tested as a real project.  Several local architects and contractors I interviewed in Austin all agreed that a multi-unit development would bring down costs, but it is unclear by how much and if BIM would have a significant impact if any.  Aside from hard costs, it could be theorized that at least soft costs could be reduced by using BIM on a multi-unit development by reducing the time needed to complete construction documents and make corrections/changes.  Overall, this research would require testing BIM and non-BIM workflow strategies for single housing developments and multiple housing developments over entire project timelines.

A second area of research involves combining or linking information between BIM and GIS.  Most counties and cities in the U.S. have GIS data, which typically include topography, vegetation, utilities, building footprints, streets, land-use, zoning, plots, and demographics.  This information is very valuable for gathering statistics and for development planning.  BIM on the other hand is also valuable for gathering specific information about building components and local site information.  GIS is certainly a macro-information tool and BIM by comparison would be a micro-information tool, however, each tool tends to reference information that is represented in the other.  There has been increasing interest in how GIS and BIM databases might link and share data between platforms.  Considering the current challenges in trying to achieve a usable exchange format even among proprietary BIM companies (IFC or otherwise), it seems unlikely that an even broader exchange format might be developed between these same BIM platforms and various GIS platforms.  Nonetheless, the potential benefits of merging information databases could have enormous long-term benefits for city planners and developers.

A third area of research involves exploring the benefits of using BIM for digital fabrication.  This could take two forms:  digital fabrication for model representation (i.e. 3D printing) or digital fabrication for full-scale construction components.  A promising benefit to using BIM tools for design and documentation is that material components can be fabricated directly from the BIM model.  While this has already been done for representation and construction applications, it has yet to be applied specifically for affordable and sustainable housing development.  It would be interesting to determine how communication between stakeholders might be affected if scale models of various design options were 3D printed as opposed to hand-constructed.  Also, it would be interesting to research the cost savings by using BIM models for digital component construction to reduce waste and construction time.

A fourth extension of research involves developing and testing sustainable parametric ‘plug-ins’ for BIM software tools.  The intent is that design and analysis become a seamlessly integrated process, where design decisions have quantifiable results through continuous analysis, which in turn helps to inform further design optimizations.  As I explained in Chapter 2, I attempted to create a parametric photovoltaic array that could be used in a BIM tool like Revit to quickly approximate the potential for renewable energy production.  Unfortunately, it was not successful and it could be argued that other software tools (such as Ecotect and PVWATTS) are better suited to addressing this type of simulation.  One investigation could be to determine which types of sustainable analysis are appropriate for BIM tools and which should be exclusive to third-party analysis tools.  The next step would be develop some of these ‘plug-ins’ specifically for BIM tools and test their effectiveness for improving sustainable design strategies.

A fifth area of research not addressed in this thesis involves comparing current BIM software tools in terms of appropriateness for affordable and sustainable housing.  In an effort to conduct thorough simulation research in a reasonable timeframe, I focused solely on Autodesk’s Revit.  However, I am not convinced that this software is necessarily the ‘right tool for the job’ with regard to the design and construction of affordable and sustainable housing.  An interesting continuation of this research might involve testing various BIM tools (i.e. Vectorworks, Revit, Microstation, and ArchiCAD) for a given affordable/sustainable housing development project and comparing how each performs in specific categories.  Eastman, et al. (2008), has already compiled a pros and cons list of various BIM platforms, but the comparisons lack a specific context, stakeholder group(s), or project type.  This further research could also help to determine to what degree the technology is influential on affordability and sustainability.

A sixth topic of inquiry might involve more closely examining the economical aspects of using a BIM process to facilitate communication between stakeholders.  As I outlined in Chapter 5, the use of an alternative incentive structure oriented around BIM could significantly impact soft costs, especially for city governments, which typically incur the greatest overhead costs.  In addition, the cost savings could be used to offset the initial software purchases and continual training costs associated with higher-capacity BIM tools.  While I proposed a hypothetical incentive structure for Austin Texas, it would be beneficial to test this framework in a given city and document the observed barriers and opportunities.  The State of Texas and the State of Wisconsin both require that state buildings use a BIM process, but this regulation has yet to be mandated for other building types, such as housing.  This research would undoubtedly require the orchestration and testing of partnerships between BIM software developers, city governments, city utilities, local architects/contractors, and clients/owners.

Finally, a seventh area of research involves analyzing social relationships between stakeholder groups and the communication interfaces linked to BIM models.  One challenge with the AFI, for example, has been to create a design communication methodology that is transparent and universal.  Based on research conducted by Dammann & Elle (2006), it is unlikely that a universal indicator language will be developed in the near future.  One step towards this ideal common language, (as I explained in Chapter 5) is currently being explored by Autodesk in the form of a web-based social interface for project teams that would allow for quick and easy collaboration and document sharing.  Unfortunately, this type collaborative tool is still under development and it is unclear if multiple interfaces will be developed to cater towards specific stakeholder needs and if these interfaces will be able to “translate” and facilitate the integration of various types of user knowledge.  Furthermore, it is unclear if future BIM social networking interfaces will be proprietary (specific to certain BIM platforms), or if they will support multiple platforms.  This would require greater in-depth research about stakeholder project needs with regard to specific project type(s), including affordable/sustainable housing.  Similar to comparing BIM platforms as suggested earlier under future research topic five, it would be worth comparing various web-based interfaces in terms of accessibility, programming, maintenance, and compatibility to name a few.  The development of stakeholder interfaces might lead to greater design and construction transparency in addition to faster project development timelines due to increased access to information.

The above topics of inquiry are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but instead offer suggested topic outlines which could benefit from this research and hopefully expand upon it in other areas that might be of benefit for BIM and affordable/sustainable housing development in the future.

One Response to “Chapter 7: Future Research”

  1. […] Chapter 7: Future Research […]

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