Up Next: Your Architecture Career, 3.0

November 18th, 2011

The use of building information modeling (BIM) continues to grow among firms worldwide. While there is significant geographic variation, professionals who master BIM skills report higher earnings than their counterparts using CAD.

All the once-flat components of your world are turning three-dimensional, and not just at the movies. If it hasn’t already, your career is quickly escaping its two-dimensional flatland as well.

If you think of ink on vellum as Your Career 1.0, computer-aided drafting as 2.0, then the 3D capabilities of building information modeling (BIM) constitute Your Career 3.0. And the uptake of BIM clearly has reached a tipping point.

In 2008, more than one-third of firms polled by the American Institute of Architects indicated they already had obtained BIM software, more than double the share in 2005. A separate report, this one by McGraw-Hill Construction, said that by 2009, just under half of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms had employed BIM. “Among areas that are emerging for the profession, I would certainly put BIM at the top of the list,” says Kermit Baker, AIA’s chief economist.

And it’s clear that the spread of BIM is not just spreading widely across the industry, but reaching deep into the profession. Between 2009 and 2010, the proportion of respondents in the annual Autodesk User Group International (AUGI) salary survey who identify themselves as BIM managers doubled, from 3 percent to 6 percent. And that’s up from the 1.6 percent who identified themselves as BIM managers when the AUGI survey first provided this option in the 2007 survey.

The introduction of a BIM survey question four years ago reflected AUGIWorld’s growing appreciation of the importance of BIM as a professional specialization. The 2012 edition may distinguish between BIM and non-BIM designers to reflect the evolution of that position, says Melanie Perry, a St. Louis-based technical writer and editor who has for several years produced the survey.

Information, Please

BIM itself has evolved over the years. McGraw-Hill’s definition, the “process of creating and using digital models for design, construction, and/or operations of projects,” is certainly serviceable. When drafting lines were supplanted with digital models infused with AEC information, architecture professionals were able to create more accurate and comprehensive project models. For the first time, all professionals at all stages of a project worked in the same virtual space – the BIM model.


CAD Drawing- drafting lines

For many professionals, one of the most profound changes brought about by BIM appears to affect not just the output, but the very processes that define the industry. When a single BIM model contains all the specifications for a given project, “everyone is seeing the space the same way,” says Rebecca Herr, a 2005 Georgia Institute of Technology graduate who served as a senior designer in the Atlanta, Georgia, USA, headquarters of the international firm Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart (SRSS).  “BIM is not just about the architect; it’s a collaboration.”

It’s About Time, It’s About Space

Today, information imported into BIM models can include such fine detail as surface finishes and reflected light, with resolutions sufficiently high to produce realistic renderings of the finished product.

The most current BIM models incorporate the fourth dimension, time. Pulling data from the estimate and project logic models, BIM modeling depicts the sequential construction of a project in a simulated three-dimensional graphic. Estimates and design elements can be updated instantaneously, making it possible to respond to and visualize client requests in real time.

BIM Model - Object Oriented

Show Me the Money

According to the most recent AIA survey, compensation at architectural firms remained flat between 2008 and 2011, reflecting in large part a struggling economy, But that same survey noted that almost a third of firms offer higher salaries for staff that have BIM expertise.  Your chances for getting a BIM boost in salary were better – 43 percent – at a firm with 100 or more employees. With fewer than 10 employees, the likelihood that a firm would offer a BIM premium dropped to 24 percent

The latest available AUGI salary statistics, from 2010, further establish BIM’s position as a compensation booster: overall, BIM managers reported an average annual salary of $62,791, while the average annual salary for a CAD manager was $62,014.

The 2011 figures from the AUGI Salary Survey were published in the September 2011 issue of AUGIWorld.

The averages, though, mask significant variation among the 10 regions. In half of the regions surveyed – Pacific, South, Southwest, Australia, and Canada – BIM managers actually made less than their CAD counterparts. The place to be, in either professional mode, was Australia. There, CAD managers reported an annual salary of $79,583 and their BIM colleagues averaged $77,500 annually, making Australia easily the best-paying region in either field.

The Bottom Line

BIM professionals can command top dollar because their skills boost the bottom line of their firms. In that 2009 McGraw-Hill survey, 63 percent of BIM users said they saw positive ROI on their overall investment in BIM and 72 percent of users who formally measure their ROI on BIM report positive returns. Moreover, advanced BIM skills translate into higher returns: 87 percent of expert users reported a positive ROI with BIM compared to 38 percent of beginners.

The skills and training for BIM are considerable; even mastering a basic component can require weeks of intensive training. In the past, training by your friendly local Autodesk reseller was sufficient to handle basic CAD software, but in the days of BIM, firms have to reach out to the few architecturally trained and very experienced Mentors to guide their staff through multiple BIM projects. The AIA’s Mr. Baker notes that, in the current economic slowdown, it is not uncommon for firms to make available BIM workstations where professionals can teach themselves BIM skills in anticipation of a stronger economy. This self-taught method of training, while resourceful, has lead to inadequately trained staff, and often discovered too late to help the firm’s latest BIM project.

Useful at Any Stage

Right now, many architects think of BIM as best suited for the later, more complex stages of large-scale commercial projects. That was Ms. Herr’s initial attitude at SRSS, where she worked on several large-scale efforts, including redevelopment of Atlanta’s Buckhead commercial district. For some, the elaborate functionality of BIM may be more than is necessary in a project’s early stages, where clients might like to brainstorm and work from rough sketches.

“In the beginning, you do a lot of work by hand. If your initial sketches are too finished or too polished, you might even scare a client a bit,” she says.

But even there, BIM can rise to the occasion and provide an appropriate solution. Ms. Herr notes that in the early stages of a project, BIM output can be tweaked to resemble the rough renderings familiar both client and design professional

Widespread applicability

BIM processes can be incorporated into almost any stage of the design/build process. In addition, BIM is rapidly taking hold in facilities management, lease management, and asset management.

Still, BIM professionals are unlikely to work exclusively with 3D modeling, says St. Louis editor Perry. Instead, managers and designers are more likely to switch back and forth between BIM and CAD as the professional establishes new professional and industry standards. “People who are flexible are going to be the ones who are successful,” she says.

The AIA report can be purchased through the association’s store at www.aia.org/store.

Elizabeth Connor, MA, MS, is a freelance technical writer and editor based in Roswell, Georgia, USA. She is affiliated with Advanced AEC Solutions, LLC, in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and can be reached at econnor@aaecs.com.

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