Tuesday, September 16, 2014


This is a talk I gave this morning at the second Dubai "BIM Breakfast"

Why have I chosen to paraphrase Bill Clinton's election slogan for my title ?  BIM is a propaganda war.  We are fighting for the hearts & minds of the construction industry.  Trying to drag it out of the stone age.

Most of us have heard the phrase "it's all about the I in BIM".  But stuffing your model full of data doesn't guarantee a well designed building.  So for me "It's all about the DM in BIM" ... and I don't mean Dubai Municipality ... I'm talking about Decision Making.  That's the focus of this presentation.  How can better BIM support Decision Making processes ... with a special emphasis on the role of manufacturers, suppliers & specialist sub-contractors.

When I was a young boy, sometimes I would go shopping with my mum.  We'd walk down to the butcher's & buy some meat; across the road to Uncle Sandy, the baker & buy a fresh white loaf; then back along the street to the greengrocer ... Each of these shopkeepers knew us by name. "Hello Mrs Milburn, what will it be today ?" Everything would be placed carefully in brown paper bags and there would be a hand written receipt, added up the old-fashioned way.

Today I drive to Spinneys, Lulu or Carrefour & rush up and down the aisles with my trolley, grabbing pre-packaged merchandise as I pass.  At the checkout, someone I never saw before scans the bar codes.

At this point, information ripples outwards across the universe at the speed of light, updating databases in real time.  Every day, that branch knows exactly what has been purchased. They can pull up graphs of purchasing trends over the past month, or the past year.  Down the supply chain, the guys who make baked beans or breakfast cereals can aggregate data from thousands of outlets.  In board rooms around the world this information is converted into glossy reports that inform decisions about where and when the next mega-mall or factory will be built.

In my lifetime a digital revolution has completely transformed the retail industry.
But it seems that the construction industry has not changed to the same extent.  Why is this ?  Part of the answer is volume, rapid turnover.  Every day, thousands of cans of Baked Beans are sold, millions perhaps. Retailing is a repetitive process that is relatively easy to mechanize, digitize, optimize.

At Godwin Austen Johnson we design a lot of hotels and resorts.  Our projects are well known and our reputation is high.  But when I say a lot of hotels, I'm actually talking about a handful each year, and every one of them is substantially different.  Some are city-centre business hotels, some are coastal resorts, some are inland desert villages.  The repetition factor is negligible.

The role of information in construction & retail is very different.  Take for example the ratio of DATA to DECISION MAKING.  In retail you have a lot of highly organised data, and relatively few decisions.  You might adjust your shelving arrangements twice a year for example.  In design and construction our data is all over the place and we are making dozens of critical decisions every day.


This is where BIM comes in.  A BIM authoring tool like Revit is actually database software.  Retailing has transformed itself by linking all the points of sale to databases and then connecting these databases together.  We need to connect our BIM databases to the rest of the supply chain.  But first let's take a closer look at BIM authoring, for the benefit of those who may not be hands-on modellers, which is to say, the majority of the people in the construction industry.

05 Rural House video (maybe I'll get around to uploading this later- it's a very simple introduction to BIM authoring)

This short video click illustrates in a very simple way how a BIM authoring programme like Revit is a database application.  All the information about this small Rural African House is stored in a highly systematic manner.  The definitions of all the components are stored in a list organised by category: wall, roof, window, door etc.  Each of these components is made from materials which are cross-referenced from another list. 

Every piece of information required to define the building has its own place in the database. Change any one of these parameters and the effects will ripple through the entire model.  Furthermore we can sort and filter this information in many different ways to help us analyse the current status of the design and to identify areas where decisions need to be made.
So where do the suppliers and manufacturers figure in all this ?

You can download manufacturer content (BIM objects) from a variety of web sites. Quality varies and there are big gaps in some areas, but the message is spreading and huge strides have been made over the last 2 years or so.

The question remains though: is this really what BIM is about?  Do we really design buildings by dragging and dropping objects into our projects ? 

Isn't the essence of design teamwork, brainstorming, sharing ideas and knowledge, sitting around a table and solving problems.  Shouldn't we be looking for software that supports interactive processes ?  Actually quite a few manufacturers have been thinking along these lines for some time, just not in the context of BIM.

German sanitaryware manufacturers Duravit have an on-line application that works almost like BIM.  You can create a bathroom of more-or-less any size and shape, add doors and windows from a visual menu and then choose Duravit fittings to complete the bathroom design.

UK company Ideal Standard have a similar system which goes even further.  The images feature photo-real textures and once you are done the app will generate a schedule with product images, part numbers, quantities etc.  They also offer specification tools for architects and CAD downloads, but no BIM objects.

There is a huge "disconnect" between the user-friendly, interactive design apps and the cumbersome download packages that many manufacturers provide.  Hit the download button for one of the Ideal Standard ranges and you get a zip file with dozens of folders.  Inside each folder is a huge list of CAD files with indigestible names. 

Rubber flooring specialists Nora have a nice app on their web site that allows you to choose from a number of typical context images (schools, hospitals, factories etc)  Choose any product from their range and you get a convincing image of how a finished project will look.  They also offer BIM downloads: pre-formated material swatches that include embedded data and images that allow rendering from within the BIM application.

Sadly there is no connection between the material selection app and the BIM downloads.  In fact the BIM materials are far from user friendly: huge download sizes and difficult to follow instructions that actually don't work.  What would be really cool would be if you could select materials via the app, add them to a shopping basket, then download a zip file with just those materials (high res context images, data sheets & BIM data, all in one package plus a web link that you could email to a QS or a contractor so that they could access the same data and hold their own conversations with Nora)
None of this should be taken as a criticism of the companies concerned.  I chose these 3 because they make good products and they are making a real effort to create interactive digital tools.  I give them top marks for pushing the envelope.  What remains is to make their tools talk to our tools.  And that is a task for all of us.

Part of the answer may be an app developed by a web site called "The Source" who offer a portal to "Global Product Data"  (Global is of course a well known euphemism for American)  Actually the app is really neat, I just wish it would link to manufacturers we use in the UAE.  Give it time, give it time.

At this point I'm going to invent a new acronym "Cloco Zones".  It stands for Cloud Collaboration: Web Portals where Building Designers can meet up with Manufacturers and Suppliers within a BIM environment.  Imagine a hybrid between BIM 360, the Ideal Standard bathroom design app and GPD ProductTAG.

Cloud Services like BIM 360 Glue are already offering interactive zones where Consultants, Contractors & Clients can engage in digitally informed problem solving.  Wouldn't it be great if we could extend this into the world of technical advice and support that we have been receiving from specialist suppliers and subcontractors for decades via more traditionally means ?

Take ironmongery for example (door hardware).  The traditional method is to send an email out to a friendly supplier, give them floor plans (with door tags) and a schedule of door types, then wait for a couple of weeks while they set to work on analysing this data, feeding it into excel perhaps, & creating hardware sets.  Eventually they send us a pdf, or maybe even a word document or excel file, with little pictures, product descriptions and quantities. 
Checking this through and pushing the data back into our model consumes more time and by then there have probably been one or two design changes, so we end up sending comments on the first submission along with revised drawings so that they can update their schedules.  The whole process can easily take a month or more.
But what if we sent a subset of the BIM data through to a web portal, which they could populate with their proposals. 

Firstly this would give them a much better 3 dimensional grasp of the project, and being a database they could sort and filter the information in any number of ways.  Built-in markup and messaging capabilities would allow rapid exchange of queries and suggestions.  Surely this would result in better decisions and faster turnaround times.

Better still, the same web portal could be used at tender stage to inform the price negotiations between suppliers and contractors.  A lot of manual cross-checking and duplication of effort could be avoided, and of course once the project is awarded, the data can be passed seamlessly through to the procurement process.  I know that standards and software compatibility are going to be big issues, but surely this has to be the future.
So to conclude, here is my definition of BIM.  Two definitions actually

In other words, BIM is much more than Revit, or any other authoring software.  It is the use of digital tools to inform our decision making processes so that we can design and construct buildings more effectively.

Consultants have digital tools, Contractors have digital tools, Suppliers have digital tools.  Better decision making requires that we teach these tools how to talk to each other.  This in turn will allow the human beings involved to have better-informed discussions, and put their skill and experience to use

That's my message for today.  I will be posting this presentation on my blog later in the week. Lots of other stuff there if you are interested.  Also GAJ web-site is well worth a look.  We've been using BIM for more than 8 years now.  Good design, good processes, always learning new stuff, not afraid of the future.


  1. Andrew,
    Thanks for expressing this info.
    Since you mentioned door hardware, Assa Abloy has the 'Openings Studio' add-on for Revit which allows their specialists to interact with the BIM.

  2. Thanks Jay, I'll take a look at that, sounds very interesting. I think we are going to see a lot of developments in this area over the next 2 or 3 years.

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