Blueprint For Change - InformationWeek
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John Foley
John Foley
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Blueprint For Change

Collaboration is coming to the building industry. It's a monumental shift that promises speed and efficiency.

At design company Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo, visionary architects have drafted blueprints for such far-out projects as an outer-space resort. Yet most of the firm's designers use a computer program originally released 22 years ago to manifest their big ideas. It's a paradox of the trade: Projects of grand scale are designed using pencils, paper, plaster-of-Paris models, and AutoCAD, the popular-but-aging PC application.

But the old way of doing things--fraught with inefficiencies and rooted in the outdated idea that collaboration between architects and builders presented a conflict of interests--is starting to change. Architects, engineers, and builders have begun to adopt a new generation of applications from vendors such as Autodesk, Bentley Systems, and Graphisoft that support what's called building-information modeling, in which databases manage three-dimensional drawings and gigabytes of related project data.

Though some large companies like Bechtel Group Inc. started down this path years ago, in part using internally developed systems, building-information modeling has been slow to catch on across the industry because it's fragmented and tends to be penny-wise with its IT spending. "It's a great idea that just took a long time to get around to," says Larry Rocha, VP and CIO of Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo. Based on firsthand experience, Rocha says the technology could help his company perform certain tasks with half the staff required today. "The quality of coordination goes way, way up, and the timing goes way, way down," he says.

If the trend gains momentum, the building industry stands to be transformed in ways similar to what supply-chain management has done for manufacturers. "Clearly, the whole idea of developing a design of a building in three dimensions and using a database to document it is going to be the way we do things in the future," says Ross Wimer, a design partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of two architectural firms designing New York's Freedom Tower, to be built on the site of the fallen World Trade Center. "The idea of creating a database and giving it to a contractor will be a much more streamlined process."

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill recently launched a building-information-modeling trial using Autodesk's Revit application in its New York office and plans a second trial using Bentley's software in Chicago. The potential benefits range from compressing the time needed to prepare and share documents to greater precision in the execution of unusual forms, Wimer says. Factors that need to be assessed in the trials, he adds, are the training requirements and graphics sophistication of building-information models, and how well the new tools work for unconventional building types.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill declined to say whether building-information modeling is being applied to the Freedom Tower's design, but the firm will use "some interesting project-management tools" for the project, a spokeswoman says.

Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo is designing a floating city, 2-1/2 times bigger than the largest cruise ship.

Illustration courtesy Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo
Older approaches have serious limitations. Tools of the trade like Autodesk's AutoCAD produce 3-D graphics, but they lack much of the associated information that's required to actually construct a building, such as the schedule for when concrete gets poured or the cost of materials. What's more, if a change is made to a floor plan, there's no easy way to replicate that change to every subcontractor who needs that information.

When architects do create 3-D electronic models, they may have to strip out valuable information to make it usable by others, says Monica Schnitger, an analyst with Daratech, a market-research firm for the engineering and construction industry. If that same information is needed later, it must be re-created, and miscues are common. "When you get to the construction site, you find electricians standing around saying, 'There's no place to run this wire,'" she says.

Building-information-modeling software can bring design and construction projects into the 21st century--and at about $5,000 per user, it's a drop in price from what used to be state of the art. A few weeks ago, Autodesk upgraded the building-information-modeling platform it obtained in 2002 via its acquisition of Revit Technology Corp. Among other things, Revit 6 lets designers share elements they create for use in other parts of a plan or work on alternate schemes within one file so a client can choose from various options.

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