The Level After the Next Level

When it comes to change, the best defense is acceptance. Three years ago I wrote an article titled “Getting to the Next Level.” Reflecting on that now, quite a bit has changed since the article was published. For those who have not transitioned to a BIM-capable process, the same obstacles remain. For those who have managed to get to the point where they can say “we use Revit now,” it might actually be worse. They may be operating under the illusion they have kept up with the times. In fact, Autodesk® Revit® does not equal BIM and BIM alone is a far cry from where the industry is going. In the last several years, firms have faced increasing pressure to keep evolving and provide an ever-increasing variety of services. With the bar continually rising and the targets changing, how do you stay viable? How do you get to the level after the next level?

There is not a simple or one-size-fits-all answer, but firms will need to spend money, spend time, and build a culture of embracing change to get there.

What's Happening?

Back in 2010 Patrick MacLeamy from HOK put forward that for every $1 spent on a building information model, $20 of benefit could be realized in the building assembly model, which in turn could lead to $60 of benefit in the building operations model. It is not a big jump from there to linking the information in separate buildings together to form City Information Models (CIM). By combining the geospatial platform of something like Google Earth with data base-driven building models, cities can reap benefits of better emergency response times, lower crime rates through real-time police patrol adjustments, streamlined road repair leveraging resident reporting, and many others. The potential money gained by successively paying data forward should have everyone fully committed to a BIM process. The reality is, much like recycling and electric cars, because it is a good idea and it can work doesn't mean everyone will just fall in line and make it work. The BIM process has a lot to overcome and one of the biggest obstacles may very well be the BIM design software on which the building industry has come to rely.

Autodesk Evolves

Anyone who has used Revit for a while has come to understand the limitations inherent in  software that was cutting edge in 1999. There are basic limitations to sharing design data over the entire rainbow of potential consumers in a building’s life cycle. Perhaps in recognition of that, Autodesk has made some not-so-subtle changes in recent years. No more physical copies of Revit without a fee is nudging Revit users embrace a more virtual interaction with Autodesk. Desktop subscription of AutoCAD introduced a pay-as-you-go model that begins to steer users from a perpetual license to a term license structure. Most telling is the introduction of A360 Collaboration for Revit. It is a new way of providing Revit in an online manner with additional tools for in-context communication, extended team integration, and cloud centralization.

The casual observer can clearly see Autodesk transition from software provider to service provider. Cloud rendering and analysis will no longer be services that users will have to copy their data to the cloud to perform. It will already be there. These additional services do provide additional revenue streams for Autodesk as well as a pause for users who must decide how to bridge the gap from little data to big data.

The Cloud Returns

The idea of the cloud came with many an inflated expectation. Later, it seemed to just fade into the background, but don’t count the cloud out. With new and aggressive expectations for buildings in design, construction, and in use, the cloud’s near limitless computing power provides a convenient way to appease the shortest schedules. The cloud also offers the ability to transfer the maintenance and expense of onsite servers and support offsite and out of mind for a monthly fee. Risk mitigation, upgrades, and technology shifts become the problem of the provider and not the firm. The cloud also acts as the entrepreneurial equalizer, allowing small firms to make a big splash with limited physical assets. This changes the landscape of too small to compete and too big to fail.

Ultimately the cloud allows for the direct linkage of data from multiple sources. This is where the idea of leveraging big data to support the design, construction, and use of buildings gains significant traction. With near unlimited data available, the skills of specialists will be in knowing what questions to ask, not in their ability to research. Companies such as the Google X offshoot Flux have already found ways to compile and parse multiple building codes for the city of Austin into a 3D geospatial-aware interface that instantly and graphically shows developers the constraints of building on differing sites. This not only shortens the site selection process, but greatly improves the chances of finding the best site by turning massive amounts of data into usable information.

It makes sense for the cloud to be the common ground for teams. The big players in BIM are built on proprietary programming, leaving few widely used BIM tools built on an open standard. IFC has fallen far short of being the common language of BIM for over a decade. Cloud technologies leverage the Web and Internet protocol. A more well-proven and supported environment than the Internet would be difficult to find.

What's Coming?

At KeenCon last year, Jen Carlile of Flux gave a compelling presentation on the large order of magnitude it will take to house the planet’s growing population over the next 35 years. The addition of 3.3 billion people requires a more streamlined process that can adapt quickly to changing sites and conditions. Flux’s solution is the idea of a building seed that is able to query the site and instantly orient and configure a building, potentially accounting for traffic, drainage, solar, and code issues. In the demonstration the building went from zero to SD in seconds and then allowed for interactive modification. The same building seed planted at a different site would produce a different building based off the new geospatial and code conditions present there.

Autodesk’s Technology Futurist Jordan Brandt spoke last October about how cloud computing has enabled future-looking firms to let computers essentially take a billion shots in the dark as a design technique. Running genetic algorithms, Moon Express and Autodesk produced an organic looking bracket that attaches a thruster to the fuselage of a lunar lander. It’s organic looking because it was essentially grown and vetted against thousands of other virtual attempts. In a very evolutionary process the most capable bracket was produced.

If these changes are difficult to accept, there is more bad news. The changes don't end there. Bio-nano printing, 4D printing, construction robots, and a genetically engineered leaf have entered the news in the last year. Buzzwords and phrases such as parametricism, nextification, disruptive innovation, and revolution by disruption are working their way into the common vernacular. Not that long ago the positions of BIM Manager and Technology Futurist didn’t exist. You can bet there are going to be many more new job titles required in the quickly evolving world of designing, building, and operating buildings.

The Role of the BIM Manager

The pie that was once cut in three slices for the architect, engineer, and general contractor is already being cut into thinner and thinner slices to accommodate specialists, analysis, and advocates. They will run smoke mitigation, LEED accreditation, terrorist scenarios, energy, evacuation, and solar analysis, and more. The general practitioner will be replaced by a gaggle of specialists. So the days of the all-knowing BIM Manager running from fire to fire saving the day will have to transition to a BIM Manager who truly manages a team of BIM specialists all focused on complex tasks of their own.

What Does it Mean?

I often ask myself “Why are we doing this?” Today, my answer is because there has never been a more exciting time to be in the business. It may seem like a thousand things are going a million directions and it’s pointless to engage, but in chaos there is always opportunity. For those who are willing to take a leap of faith, the rewards can be great.