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Last edited 12 Jan 2016

BIM - it’s about the Planet - Part 3

Author: Keith Snook (with funding from BRE Trust)

This is part 3 of a 5 part paper. Click below to read the other parts:


[edit] The technology

What we now know as BIM may not go quite as far back as the Lutyens quote but certainly goes back to the 1960s – the era of “Banwell” and “Tavistock”. Put very simplistically, and perhaps even patronisingly, the development of computing has in part been a story of a universal solution with huge potential looking for problems to address. Applications in manufacturing are familiar and there were enlightened thinkers from both computing and construction who had realised that the built environment would also be a very likely place. Indeed not just the “built environment” but environment more generally as developments in mapping (Geographic Information Systems – GIS) have run in parallel with those for construction. The first mass impact of computing was to business generally where computers were enthusiastically introduced to automate tedious tasks. This put computers inside organisations and increased their familiarity. It was also the start of the idea of integrated business systems with forward thinkers envisaging a situation where data would only emerge for uses that require human intervention and not for it to re-emerge for such things as transfer between operations if no human intervention was necessary. This is an ideal we are still pursuing, its original conception having been severely hampered by the development of competing proprietary systems for the most part addressing solitary purposes and functions and parts of complex processes rather than the whole. This would also become an issue with CAD and BIM systems.

For construction, creating detailed technical drawings (as distinct from design drawings) was identified as one of those “tedious tasks” and application of computing to this became CAD in the form Computer Aided Drafting. The same acronym is used for Computer Aided Design with many confusingly using the two synonymously. As early as 1962 Douglas C. Englebart makes suggestions of the shift from just Drafting to Design in his paper Augmenting Human Intellect [15]. Perhaps being an engineer rather than an architect himself his cited ‘architectural design’ example, focuses on technical rather than aesthetic design aspects.

“The architect next begins to enter a series of specifications and data – a six-inch slab floor, twelve-inch concrete walls eight feet high within the excavation, and so on. When he has finished, the revised scene appears on the screen. A structure is taking shape. He examines it, adjusts it. These lists grow into an ever more-detailed, interlinked structure, which represents the maturing thought behind the actual design.”

It does however introduce concepts of what we now know as parametric object based design involving a relational database; or (now) BIM for short.

In construction and with the move from research into viable commercial systems during the 1970s and 80s much of the development activity became directed towards further reducing the tedium and cost of drafting and, for the more forward thinking, creating parametrically accurate objects linked to other relevant data. Virtually all development however had the objective of producing reliable drawings, and schedules, to fit into the normal contractual, legal and business processes of construction whether in the UK, US or Europe (or elsewhere – Finland for example has always been at the forefront of the subject). With much of it having been based in research and at that time there being little imperative for considering open or interoperable systems, improvements continued in the computing aspects and software advanced (within the scope of also rapidly improving hardware) but the end game was still servicing the industry business norms and to a limited extent advancements in visualisations and graphical rendering. Whilst the earlier list of reports and the sometimes bleak messages within them about these norms is confined to the UK, most other regions had broadly similar issues with interdisciplinary relationships and there was little reference to using information technology to address these issues. Perhaps there should have been more in that the sponsoring body for the 1978 UK “PIG” report was the “Project Information Group (PIG) of the Department of the Environment NCC Standing Committee on Computing & Data Co-ordination”, but the report focused on the observed problems, with frequent references to BRE research, and bizarrely bearing in mind the scope implied in its title, did not mention computer applications.

Another aspect, particularly in respect of commercial development in the early years was the human/computer interface and there was a period when the software and processing power/potential was running well ahead of this aspect as in the laboratory interface issues are generally not such an imperative. A watershed occurred between 1980 and 1985 in the commercial application of interface systems, led by the mouse, that we are familiar with now.

In the mid to late 1980s there was a discernible split in development effort. The first was towards efficiencies in the construction process which is where the first references to time being the 4th dimension in what was to become BIM were made. The other was continued development of design aspects and simulations.

[edit] Becoming virtual

In 1982 in Budapest, Hungary, work started on what is generally reckoned to be the first BIM software. Current versions of this software are in use today, they are favoured by Mac users and used mainly on small to medium sized construction projects to which it is particularly well suited. Inspired to make something to cater for more complex projects the same group developed software which following purchase by a much larger software company in 2000 is now one of the most ubiquitous Architectural BIM authoring tools with versions for other disciplines also in the portfolio.

Prior to this acquisition, which changed the company’s commercial landscape by adding a highly functional proprietary tool to their portfolio, the company had teamed up with the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI – later to become BuildingSmart [16]), to produce a particularly altruistic film called “The End of Babel” [17]. The film promotes open systems and particularly the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) [18] that AIA had just started to develop. It uses the famous story of the building of Babel as an analogy with the lack of system interoperability and, albeit an American production, was presented by a UK television household name of the day on technology, James Burke. From his script:

"The Tower of Babel, one of the biggest construction projects undertaken. Designed to reach the heavens. But the engineers couldn't finish the job. Halfway through everybody working on the job was stricken with inability to understand what the other fellow was saying. They were all still talking......but they weren't communicating. That incident was supposed to have taken place in around 5,000 BC. And we've been trying to understand each other ever since."

That vision in the film remains an objective of the current BIM initiative in the UK and probably also elsewhere as whist it focuses on the technology and the ambition for IFCs, the underlying story is about total collaboration and cooperation in order to achieve the goal.

Another approach to design collaboration is software which is solely designed to coordinate across varying file formats and include other features such as data collection, construction simulation and clash detection.

Simulation programs, many aimed at environmental issues, have been developed that work with imported models and recently BIM authoring tools have provided inbuilt simulation capability also. More recently still the increase in hand held devices has been recognised and the niche of rapid conceptualisation using such devices is being addressed by software providers including those from outside the established construction software providers and including the power houses behind global data searching.

The last significant player (for now) in the technology support is collaboration software. The message is finally being accepted at the leading edge that the multitudes of designers, consultants, project managers, construction contractors and sub-contractors brought together in a temporary organisation for the term of a project need to be able to communicate in a controlled and reliable manner with much of that communication being at data level. Only then can they start to operate effectively and efficiently as a team. The leading providers of collaboration software have also recognised the basic project stages such as design and contract preparation, construction and contract completion and operate and maintain; and are engaged in making their tools applicable throughout it. Indeed in the UK the government is funding a master ‘digital Plan of Work’ in order that all sectors can adopt a common structure. The gulf between the information involved in the construction and operation of a facility has been identified for some time and much effort is now becoming concentrated on that.

[edit] Creative tension

Related to the introduction of the technology there is a tension within the education of creative designers such as architects. The argument suggests that creativity could suffer in the face of expediency and this is probably best explained by using a simple example. BIM platforms typically represent walls, for example, as objects with layers and these layers are defined in terms of the depth and height and are then extruded along the length of a line. The program then has the ability to calculate dimensional properties such as the volume of material contained within the wall assembly and to create wall sections and details easily. However by definition this type of workflow is based on the existing buildings, common industry standards and conventional technology and solutions and therefore a project which is produced in BIM authoring software which emphasises these methods is likely to reinforce existing paradigms rather than contribute to developing new ones that advance the art and science. This is, or certainly the fear of it is, further exacerbated by the proliferation of BIM Libraries which, rather like standard details in line-drawn form from previous generations, are viewed with some suspicion.

These perceived limitations of parametric flexibility and geometry sculpting has led to the development of systems supporting non uniform rational basic splines (NURBS). These platforms have provided the power to iterate and transform for complex and provocative architectural forms and are favoured by those wishing to explore forms involving organic shapes and for projects such as those related to infrastructure where, for example, natural landform shapes inform or become a part of the design. NURBS is now increasingly incorporated into more generally available in software.

Fig 5 NURBS.gif

Fig 5. NURBS surface defined by control points over a two-dimensional parameter field. (Creative commons:

Click here to continue reading: BIM - it’s about the Planet - Part 4.

[edit] Find out more

[edit] Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

[edit] External references

  • [15] Augmenting Human Intellect: A conceptual framework (1962). Stanford Research Institute for the (then) US Director of Information Sciences, Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
  • [16] BuildingSMART, formerly the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI), is an international organisation which aims to improve the exchange of information between software applications used in the construction industry
  • [17] Link to view video (current April 2015):-
  • [18] Building SMART has developed Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs) as a neutral and open specification for Building Information Models.

--BRE Group