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Blog: What You Need to Know About BIM

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a term that is thrown around a lot in the construction industry. But what does the term mean andmore importantlywhat is the benefit to contractors who don’t build high-rises, stadiums, airports or other similar giant projects? 

According to the National BIM Standard Project Committee: “BIM is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. A BIM is a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility, forming a reliable basis for decisions during its lifecycle [and] defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition.” 

If you are like me, your eyes probably glazed over a bit while reading that definition. It’s actually a great explanation, but not exactly an elevator pitch. Here’s a more plain English version: BIM is a digital model of a building that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) team uses by extracting valuable information from it—everything from standard drawings such as plans, sections and elevations to schedules, costing, lifecycle analysis, renderings and much more. 

That might be better, but it’s still a little cold. So let’s ignore what BIM actually means. That doesn’t actually matter. What does is getting value out of BIM. 

As a residential architect, I don’t need my contractor partners to be able to explain what BIM is. There is no need for you to buy and learn the complicated software I am an expert in. Interns on their way to becoming architects will spend thousands of hours in front of the computer using BIM. We are the expert digital modelers. As contractors, you have other things you should be dedicating your time to mastering. 

What would be ideal is for you to learn to think in BIM—to understand how you can extract value from the model. It is beneficial to all of us for you to see why having BIM on your team is an asset. You don’t need to know how to model a wall in ArchiCAD or Revit. You just need to know what we can do with that wall. I want you to engage with the model through me (and other architects) to ask for things that would make all our lives easier. 

Here is a list of sample questions you should be asking your BIM-using architects: 

What is that? (What is that rectangle on the elevation?) 
Where is that? (Where is the interior elevation in the model?) 
Why is that? (Why is that blue on the plan?) 
How much of that do we have? (How much drywall do we have?) 
How many of them do we have? (How many casement windows do we have?) 
Can we see it without that? (Can we see the model without finishes?) 
Can we see that in 3-D? (Can we see the concrete foundation in 3-D?) 
Can we see that from another view? (Can we look at that eave condition from another angle?) 
Can we see that in color? (Can we see the exterior elevation in color?) 
Can we see that without color? (Can we see the roof plan in black and white?) 
Can we change that? (Can we change the chandelier in the rendering to the one the client picked?) 
Can we see that in a schedule? (Can I see all the lighting in a schedule?) 
Can we walk through there? (Can we walk through the hall to the bathroom?) 
Can we have a screenshot of that? (Can I have a screenshot of the bathroom?) 
Can we add that to the model? (Can we add the correct floor tile to the model?) 
If I tell you this, can you tell me that? (If I tell you the cost per square foot, can you tell me the total cost of the tile?) 

These questions are just a start. They are simple things you can ask for. Perhaps someday you will learn to ask the digital model those questions yourself, but right now that’s not necessary. The goal is to train us all to demand more from BIM, to learn the language of what’s possible. 

Thirty years ago if an architect showed you a watercolor elevation, you wouldn’t ask him or her to see the view again from a different angle or a different time of day. But in 2015 if you see a rendering, you should know you can ask for it from any angle, time of day, etc. If the architect is using BIM properly, the answer will be, “Sure, let me press some buttons and get back to you in a little bit.” 

But of course BIM isn’t just about visualization. It’s about extracting and sharing information. So maybe the question when you see a pretty image is actually, “What’s the ballpark amount of brick on this project?” or, “What’s the size of that opening?” Those questions, too, are just a starting point. 

If your architect partners know your basic questions, they can have that information waiting for you before you even ask. Then you can start asking the tougher stuff, the more creative stuff, the stuff that relates more to what you really love about doing your job (or the questions that help you solve the aspects you don’t like quicker). 

Architects build these models because it makes our lives easier. But BIM can offer so much more than just time savings, and the value of BIM increases with communication. It’s up to us to start the conversation and begin asking questions. 


Jared Banks, AIA, is a Seattle-based architect and a member of the American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architects Network. Visit www.shoegnome.com for more information.

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