Jun 16 2020

What Is Building Information Modeling Technology in Government?

Agencies can use BIM technology to design more efficient buildings.

Even though some federal workers are remaining remote and agencies are sending workers back in shifts, federal office space and government buildings are not going to disappear. Nor is the need for a wide range of federal workers to design and operate them. 

As agencies think about the kind of office space and buildings they want to occupy, there is a technology that may come in handy. Building information modeling (BIM) allows a wide range of federal agencies to design and construct buildings in a more collaborative fashion and in a more efficient way. 

While computer-aided design can be used to render 2D digital models of products, equipment and buildings, BIM takes those efforts to the next level and serves as a 3D design tool to “create and simulate how a building would operate,” says Andrew Friendly, associate vice president of government affairs at Autodesk, a leading CAD and BIM firm.

“CAD is what has allowed for a true revolution in design,” Friendly says. “CAD was a giant step and revolutionized the industry. Going from CAD to BIM similarly was a revolutionary step.”

What Is Building Information Modeling?

If CAD provides for 2D digital models, BIM is CAD’s more advanced 3D cousin. BIM is a process or mythology that uses software to construct and manage buildings from the design stage all the way through construction and then on to the operations and maintenance of the building, Autodesk’s Friendly says.

Using those computing tools, agencies can have much greater clarity into how a building project is coming along, the costs of the project, how to make it come in on time and how to avoid mistakes in construction, Friendly says.

“The computer can identify clashes before anything ever happens,” he adds. “As a friend told me, ‘It’s much easier to move a mouse than it is to move a bulldozer.’”

BIM, combined with the cloud and artificial intelligence, can be used to suggest a number of different ways to design a building, Friendly says. Architects, engineers and others can use BIM to optimize for cost, materials, time, the carbon footprint of the building and more. This is especially useful for industrialized construction, in which building components and materials are manufactured in factories and then shipped to a construction site, almost like a giant Lego set.

“The computer can suggest that if you design the building in this way, you can design and replicate the component in a factory for much less,” Friendly says. BIM can then send the designs to those factories, coordinate the construction team and provide information on how those components are delivered and assembled, Friendly says. 

The General Services Administration is a major federal user of BIM technology. A GSA spokesperson says the concept of BIM “is both the software and the process by which buildings are designed and construction is coordinated for all GSA new buildings and large-scale renovation projects.”

The skills needed within the government for effective use of BIM “will rely on our transition from thinking of BIM in the context of simply a tool for building modeling to the newer context of using BIM as part of an information management process,” the GSA spokesperson says. 

BIM technology

By virtually building the ERDC headquarters building using BIM software before physical construction started, Yates Construction’s project teams were able to create information-rich models that contain valuable information regarding the building’s design, potential constructability issues, as well as subcontractor logistics. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“If the model itself is thought of as part of a database of information about the building, rather than as a computerized version of the old balsa wood model sitting on a pedestal, multiple opportunities arise to connect aspects of building design to the outcome of its maintenance,” the spokesperson adds. 

For example, the spokesperson says, “wayfinding, building maintenance and building controls all can become part of an easier-to-use system of data, much like using a map on your phone suddenly allows you to know what coffee shops are nearby and if your friend is in one of them. The technological tools required for this will be those that make the visualization of all this information available, relatable and easy to navigate. At the moment, this is still a work in progress.”

READ MORE: Discover how the State Department uses smart building technology to save on energy usage. 

The Benefits of Building Information Modeling

BIM provides numerous benefits to architects, engineers and the construction workers they supervise. BIM can provide them with models for how pieces of a building should be constructed in sequence and where there have been safety issues in the past with similar designs, Friendly notes.

Cloud-based BIM also allows for wide-ranging collaboration between architects, designers and those creating building materials, even if they are spread around the globe, Friendly says. If an architect or designer makes a change to a building, that change then filters down to people at the construction site instantaneously.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a major proponent of BIM in government. The USACE uses the term “advanced modeling” to refer to the use of CAD, BIM, civil information modeling and geographic information systems for the development of design and construction deliverables.

Charles Paray, BIM project manager for the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers, says advanced modeling processes such as BIM support “collaboration amongst all project delivery team members and stakeholders.”

“A design generated through the use of advanced modeling tools virtually represents the physical and functional features of the project while embedding important lifecycle information and data specific to the design,” he says.

The software can also help architects optimize for everything from cost to the building’s energy efficiency ratings and suggest changes to fit within those constraints. That applies for small buildings as well as enormous infrastructure projects, Friendly says.

Building owners can use virtual reality headsets to walk around a building as virtually before it is even constructed, Friendly adds. They can then provide their feedback to architects and engineers.

Once a project is finished, BIM enables a digital model of what was actually built, which can then be integrated into building operations systems in many cases. Operations teams supporting a building’s elevators, HVAC and electrical systems can tap into the digital model to quickly understand where every component is located. That makes maintenance that much easier to perform.

BIM provides the same benefits to the government as it does to any facility owner, the GSA spokesperson says, including “better understanding of space use and design ideas, an improved process for understanding the effects of design decisions on the visual and spatial qualities of designs, earlier detection of unwanted clashes between different building components, and faster coordination of projects during construction.”

GSA is “exploring benefits from using BIM for prefabrication efforts, and we have set up standards for tracking building equipment data to smooth its transfer at construction turnover,” the spokesperson says.

DISCOVER: What are the technologies that power smart buildings?

How Is Building Information Modeling Being Used in Government?

GSA requires all new construction, major modernizations, renovations and alterations to use BIM during design and construction. 

“Techniques such as laser scanning and photogrammetry are being utilized to a greater extent with the increasing prevalence of new technology and the decreasing costs of using these services,” the GSA spokesperson says. “These techniques assist in developing error-free drawings and accurate representations of existing conditions today. We are currently testing the importation of BIM models into other representational systems, such as GIS and photogrammetry recordings, to allow better and broader access of the information to nontechnical people.”

GSA uses BIM internally and in coordination with other agencies. It has been required for all new construction and major renovations by the GSA Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service since 2009.

Initially, GSA’s expectation was for designers and contractors to use BIM to “improve design timelines, limit design conflicts and reduce change orders,” the spokesperson says. However, as the possibilities for further collaboration and information use were recognized, GSA published a series of BIM guides for general use in order to further adoption of the technology. 

Depending upon an agency’s requirements, GSA will collaborate with the agency to “provide the information they need from the modeling process and to ensure that the models produced for GSA will also meet their internal requirements at project delivery.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: What is a digital twin and how is it used in government?

A Look at CAD and BIM Vendors

The Army Corps of Engineers uses advanced modeling and related technologies throughout the design and construction process for all USACE military construction and civil works projects.

One of the major vendors for BIM and CAD applications that USACE uses is Autodesk. PDT members must be well-versed in Autodesk’s Revit and AutoCAD, among other solutions. Designers working in the CIM workflow must be proficient in Autodesk's Civil 3D tool, among other tools.

“Military programs projects executed by USACE in all locations that include more than 5,000 gross square feet of project scope and a programmed amount that exceeds $3 million must adhere to USACE Advanced Modeling requirements,” Paray says. “Civil works projects executed by USACE in all locations with a programmed amount that exceeds $3 million must adhere to USACE Advanced Modeling requirements.”

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