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FM Issue: Demystifying BIM

Written by FM Issue Contributor. Posted in Construction & Renovation, FM Issue, In-Depth Articles, Magazine, Topics

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Published on July 19, 2009 with No Comments

By Steve Freeman
Published in the July 2009 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

The majority of structures built in the U.S. today are produced with some level of sophisticated computerized modeling. Using building information modeling (BIM) tools, architects and contractors create “virtual” plans that can be precise and interactive graphic depictions of a building and all its properties before the real thing is actually constructed for facility managers (fms) to operate.

In this way, BIM is beginning to take the place of conventional architectural drawings and the huge amount of correlated print and digitized documentation. There is a tremendous potential in handing this information off to strategic facility executives for quality building operations and maintenance.

Photo: USC Cinematic Arts, Courtesy of University of Southern California. Image Design by Megan Knight, Art Director, Group C Media, Inc.

BIM meets overlapping needs of building practitioners and fms. For the fm, a BIM platform can mean:

  • collaborative ties with the architects and contractors [see sidebar below, at right] who build the structures they maintain;
  • collaborative better handoff of more information;
  • easier information retrieval;
  • a “virtual” building interface;
  • automated servicing; and
  • real time—even predictive—monitoring of all aspects of today’s structures throughout their life cycles.

Such advantages challenge “business as usual.” According to some estimates from the National Institute of Building Sciences and others, gathering comprehensive facility information on a typical building after occupancy without a tool like BIM can take six months or more and can cost between $25,000 and $40,000. But in many cases, that documentation has already been gathered a minimum of two or three times by architects, contractors, or commissioning agents without being shared with fms.

Of course, facility professionals already use a variety of software tools that compile and link product and process information for each facility. These tools include FAMIS, Meridian, and MasterSpec.

A single building may require one, two, or more such software tools. But BIM goes one step further to integrate the data and to present it in a Web-based three dimensional (3D) interface with a highly functional dashboard of capabilities.

What Is BIM?

BIM is the natural progression of the use of computer aided design (CAD) tools to combine graphic objects with parametric dimensions in a way that simulates actual construction results even before groundbreaking. The building industry has come to embrace BIM just like automakers and airplane designers use advanced CAD and simulation tools.

BIM technology creates a data-rich, 360?, highly scalable, digital 3D representation of a structure. All aspects of the design and construction—inside and out, from foundation to the rooftop—make up the “virtual” building created in BIM. A software operator can zoom out for a bird’s eye view or can zoom in to within 2′ of any item in that model.

Most importantly, BIM can link to (and accommodate) a diverse mix of input information, including equipment monitors and proprietary data available only from equipment manufacturers’ Web sites. In this, BIM holds the promise of better organizing and automating the work of the fm.

The importance of information handoff is nothing new. Tools offering computer aided facility management (CAFM) and computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) are popular. An emerging tool that is destined to become a standard is known as COBIE (construction operations building information exchange), which supports interoperability based on cross platform information uploads by minimizing redundancies and maximizing shared knowledge input.

While COBIE procedures can be achieved in the prevailing 2D environments, five BIM tools with 3D advantages currently offer COBIE capabilities, too.


The newlevel of collaboration between professionals is powered bysophisticated, interactive 3D modeling, especially as offered by BIM(building information modeling) tools to the building industry. Bylinking a building’s 3D model with databases and Web based monitoringcapabilities, fms like those at the University of Southern California[see accompanying article at right] are reaping major benefits to theirlife cycle operations and maintenance.

”The USC project is arare glimpse into the future when owners will routinely requiredesigners and construction contractors to build fully tested models oftheir facilities first, work out problems, build to that model, andthen turn over a true, as built to the fm to operate the facility forthe rest of its life,” explains Deke Smith, executive director ofbuildingSMART alliance, an advocacy group in the National Institute ofBuilding Sciences.

Fms—perhaps wondering how to capitalize on these developments—are offered some direction with the following suggestions.

Secure owner support.A design and construction project gets its lifeblood from the buildingowner. The kind of information collaboration and gathering availablethrough an adoption of building modeling tools won’t happen withoutbuy-in by an owner. Fms have the ability to influence owners by citingbenefits of building modeling to deliver stellar life cycle results.

Get a seat at the table.The acceptance of building modeling tools has been accompanied by a newlevel of collaboration among a broad spectrum of individuals, firms,and companies with interests in a building. Fms can join with owners tomeet with architects, contractors, engineers, equipment and materialmanufacturers, and other consultants to reap the benefits of integratedproject delivery.

Expect timely and thorough collection of information.The bank of databases and information for the best building managementis generated by architects and contractors in the planning stages of abuilding project. Fms can help set an agenda for gathering that sharedknowledge.

Identify preferred information packets.Determine the type and quality of information about the hundreds ofaspects and assets of a building. With the backing of the owner, fmscan hold designers and contractors accountable to provide itaccordingly. For example, a contractor may not think it is important toknow the reserve capacity for a cooling system, but a facilityexpansion or conversion in the future will prompt the need for thatinformation.
Invest in a BIM tool. Now that building modelingsoftware is more common, owners and fms will want to participate inthis way with the planning and construction of their buildings.

Expect manufacturer cooperation.The key to attaining a higher level of operations and maintenance for abuilding via data rich 3D building modeling is elite computerizedgraphics backed by sophisticated data and monitoring capabilities. Inthe new age of FM, all manufacturers of any equipment or furnishingsgoing into a building will provide that content as a regular part ofbidding. Fms can be advocates for the manufacturers’ buy-in.

Kahl, AIA, is a principal at Urban Design Group in Dallas, TX.

Combining existing facility management (FM) tools with BIM delivers all the necessary packets of information but adds visual and interactive capability as well. Having data about an air handling unit is different from having a robust, data packed, 3D representation of the unit with links to mechanisms reporting air flow, temperature, and the position of vents.

The bulk of the data is descriptive, but some of it shows live conditions; some can also be predictive. In the descriptive category are such things as product information, warranties, start up guidelines, wiring diagrams, environmental reports, spare parts lists, test results, maintenance records, and diagnostic schedules.

Key mechanical assets like HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and security systems can be monitored through built in sensors from equipment manufacturers like Honeywell or Johnson Controls.

On a daily basis, if calls are received or if FM personnel are alerted to irregularities, in a relatively short turnaround time the problem can be evaluated prior to a service call. Once the technician gets there, the information of the warranty, logistics, related past incidents, part numbers, and preferred steps are known. This means service calls are less time consuming and more effective.

Ultimately, everyone wins in the long run. Fms can retrieve data, track alterations, and monitor systems during occupancy. Added benefits come during times of renovation, sale, or demolition.

Case In Point

The University of Southern California (USC) has worked with its architects to leverage the BIM model used to produce its new School of Cinematic Arts. Convinced of its advantages, John Welsh, associate vice president of facilities management services at USC, plans to use the project’s BIM model as a new O&M platform for the management of the School of Cinematic Arts complex. The university will be developing BIM models for other key buildings—and some yet to be built.

“The introduction of this sophisticated building modeling tool provides USC with a strategic opportunity to go to the next level of FM,” said Welsh.

The project’s architect, Urban Design Group of Dallas, TX, conducted a comprehensive analysis of software options and solutions and then chose Autodesk Revit as the preferred BIM technology for the six building complex. By the second phase of the project, all nine subcontractors were required to provide digitized data and objects to a BIM “supermodel.” The design team stipulated what type of information the subcontractors had to provide—and that paid off for the FM team.

ArTrA software linked the 3D model and the USC system made up of 2DFAMIS, Meridian, MasterSpec, and Honeywell software. Ultimately, the model will alert FM personnel of mechanical problems or will be the first place to look when a facility problem is reported.

“We continue to link the model to our databases and make it useful for our fms and engineers,” says Jose Delgado, CAD services manager, USC’s facilities management services.

The university relied on ODBC and SQL computer language to begin integrating the 3D model of Phase One with its other software for “live” monitoring of the heating and air conditioning and the electrical systems in the buildings. Phase One has some 5,000 sensors of mechanical systems.

This coordinated effort will greatly improve response and repair time. Personnel can generate reports on a system failure or on energy use, generate work schedules, communicate with custodial staff if there is a spill in the lobby, and can even pass along the recommended cleaning product for use on a special stone or tile at the site of that spill.

The university is also investigating the prospect of its fms using tablet PCs that can access the BIM model while responding to calls at any given building. Handheld PCs with BIM views are already in use by the contractors who are working on Phase Two.

With the assistance of BIM technology, the university is poised to improve the way it plans, constructs, and maintains its buildings. Clearly, the incorporation of BIM into standard operating procedures at USC may very well set the tone for strategic FM at other complex campuses.

Freeman is a freelance writer, editor, and media relations professional with experience in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering, as well as high tech, health care, transportation, travel, business, and publishing. He is based in the Washington, DC area.



About FM Issue Contributor

Facility management related issues are often in the news. This monthly feature examines some of the more abstract, non-product concepts and challenges facility managers face in that regard. For more FM Issues, visit this link.

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