Building Information Modeling: BIM in Current and Future PracticeAECbytes Book Review (October 13, 2015)

As the implementation of BIM continues to gain ground in the AEC industry, so does the number of books on BIM that are published—in response to the increasing demand among AEC professionals and others involved in the design, construction, and operation of buildings for more information in the technology and how to use it. While many of these are “how-to” books on specific BIM applications such as Revit, ArchiCAD, etc., there are also general books that attempt to provide a broader and more expansive understanding of BIM, its underlying concepts, its potential benefits, its application to specific aspects of AEC/FM, its future potential, and so on. It is the latter kind of books that AECbytes occasionally reviews, starting with the review in 2008 of the first edition of BIM Handbook: A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers and Contractors, which still continues to be the seminal book on BIM for the AEC industry. We revisited the second edition of this book in the 2012 article, A Quick Look at Four Books on BIM, along with a brief overview of three other books.  Subsequently, a review of the book, BIM for Facility Managers, edited by Paul Teicholz under the aegis of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), was published last year in the Q3 2014 issue of AECbytes Magazine.

With the overall increase in the number of BIM books that are being published, so have the number of requests for book reviews that AECbytes receives. While it would be impossible to accept all these requests, there are some books that stand out—from authors with impressive credentials creating content that would be impossible to find elsewhere. One such book that was recently sent to me was Building Information Modeling: BIM in Current and Future Practice published by Wiley in June 2014. What intrigued me about this book right away was that it brought together a veritable “who’s-who” of academics and researchers in the field of AEC technology, including my own Ph.D. advisor, his Ph.D. advisor, and many other academics whose books and papers I had referred to in the course of my Ph.D. in the field of computational building design. I was curious to find out how their research had evolved over the years and about their current thinking on BIM, which hadn’t been around when I had studied their work. Now that the AEC industry had a commercially available technology that allowed a building to be digitally represented in a way that enabled analysis and simulation—which had been considered by many to be the “holy grail” of architectural computing earlier—I expected to find, reflected in this book, a dramatic increase in both the quantity and quality of technology-related research, which in turn would significantly speed up innovation and bring many benefits to AEC practitioners.

Well, did I? Before answering this question, let’s look at a brief overview of the book.

About the Book

Building Information Modeling: BIM in Current and Future Practice is a compilation of 26 chapters—each by a different author—on BIM, put together by Karen Kensek and Douglas Noble, who are long-time faculty at the University of Southern California (USC) and are actively involved in academic research and teaching. Both of them have been former presidents of ACADIA (Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture), the foremost research organization in the area of architectural computing, and have also organized an annual BIM symposium at USC for the last several years, in which academic researchers as well as industry professionals participate. As such, they are in a terrific position to be familiar with both the academic and industry perspectives in AEC technology, and they have drawn upon their knowledge and expertise in this book. Bringing 26 different authors together to contribute to a volume is no mean feat, and the book certainly does a good job in presenting a diverse range of ideas and work from some of the leading thinkers on BIM. While the majority of these come from academia, there are a few contributions from the industry as well.

Despite the common thread of BIM, each of the 26 chapters in the book captures the thinking and work of its individual authors and are therefore collectively quite diverse. Nevertheless, in an attempt to provide some semblance of order, the editors have grouped them together into six categories. The first category called “Design Thinking and BIM” includes primarily academic work on the potential impact of BIM on different aspects of architectural design including form, materials, cognitive understanding, and design rules that can be captured into knowledge-based systems. The category on “BIM Analytics,” as the name suggests, focuses on the ability of BIM to support analysis and simulation for performance-based design with technologies such as energy modeling and optimization. It had the largest number of chapters, indicating that a lot of the work on BIM was being done in this area. The third category, “Comprehensive BIM,” groups three chapters that explore the long-standing issue of single versus multiple models and the related issue of collaborative design work as well. The next category entitled “Reasoning with BIM” focuses on the ability of BIM to support a diverse array of tasks including fabrication, virtual re-construction of historic structures, and cloud-based collaboration and prototyping. The “Professional BIM” category collects the chapters related to the application of BIM in practice, while the final category, “BIM Speculations,” focuses on work that looks at expanding both the scope and the application of BIM in AEC.

Analysis

As someone coming from an academic background, I greatly appreciated the update that Building Information Modeling: BIM in Current and Future Practice gave me on the current thinking and research in architectural technology from the leading universities in this field. For the same reason, it would also be extremely useful to other researchers as well as students seeking to better understand the work in academic circles that is being done with BIM and hopefully be able to expand upon it. Thus, the value of the book as a text for students interested in AEC technology and as a general reference for current research on BIM is beyond question.

For the average practitioner, however, the book is not particularly compelling. Unlike other BIM books such as The BIM Handbook that I have reviewed so far—which was very focused on AEC practice but also sufficiently comprehensive and theoretical to be required reading in academia— Building Information Modeling: BIM in Current and Future Practice is decidedlyan academic book.  While there is some token contribution by non-academics—including a chapter from Autodesk and some chapters from the GSA—the overwhelming majority of the chapters are from academics and researchers, and written in the same scholarly manner found in academic journals. In fact, the book has the feel of a conference proceeding, where a collection of academic papers presented by researchers are published together in a combined volume. I had to read many such papers myself in the course of my Ph.D. and I found most of the chapters in the book indistinguishable from such papers, right down to the writing style, use of references, and the “discussion questions” at the end of every chapter.

In terms of the actual content—which often took multiple readings to understand, given the writing style—I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was disappointed to find that some of the research work I was familiar with had not changed much from the time I had studied it as a student. On the other hand, it was gratifying to see the progression of some ideas, now applied to BIM, as well as some more recent research, which had the advantage of being BIM-based from the start. For example, the long-standing idea of a component-based building representation ties in nicely with “objects” in BIM models, defined in different ways in different BIM applications such as “families” in Revit, “libraries” in ArchiCAD, etc. Spatial reasoning in architectural design—which analyzes a spatial configuration to determine how well it satisfies design requirements—can now be done much more easily using the ability to extract spatial information from a BIM model. Similarly, the evaluation of a design to determine how well it can support the needs of its users, and not just energy and similar performance criteria, can now be done by extrapolating the “semantics” of a building from a BIM model rather than trying to decipher them from a CAD drawing.

Some of the content that was more directly related to professional practice also made for an interesting read, including a survey of what BIM Managers actually do; the debate of a single model versus multiple models and the concept of a building information “medium” bringing together a federation of all the different BIM models that might be created for a building; a methodology for scoring the BIM implementation on a single project or for an enterprise handling multiple projects; and the prototype implementation of a knowledge-based BIM system showing how to capture design expertise and apply it to subsequent designs. I also appreciated seeing at least one chapter devoted to the extension of the BIM concept beyond an individual building, which studied the application of energy modeling to large urban areas at a district level.

Conclusion

While Building Information Modeling: BIM in Current and Future Practice could help a practitioner get a better understanding of some of the theoretical concepts underlying BIM and what is currently being undertaken as research in some of the leading universities in computational building design, it does not have much by way of practical insights that can be adopted—on how to use BIM more effectively, how it can improve the quality of design and construction, or even what we can expect from BIM going forward. Of course, not everything needs to have a practical value—often, we revel in knowledge for its own sake. From that perspective, the book’s subtitle of “BIM in Current and Future Practice” is somewhat misleading in that it does not have much content related to actual “practice.”

While the book does a great job of compiling the leading university research currently being done in AEC technology, it also inadvertently highlights the continued disconnect between industry and academia in this field. Going by the litmus test of making design and construction “better, faster, and cheaper”—a mantra few would dispute—much of the research work being done in our universities is quite obscure and has had little impact on the development of actual technologies to further the state of the art in AEC. Contrast this with say, the EDA (electronic design automation)/semiconductor industry, which has had an impressive record of close collaboration between university and companies in the field for decades. Professors and their graduate students in this field very frequently launch venture-backed startup companies to commercialize their university research. This close collaboration has served the EDA/semiconductor industry extremely well over the years.

What we need in the AEC industry is a similar dynamic. While it’s terrific that commercial technology vendors now have in-house research initiatives with dedicated resources—such as Autodesk Labs—it would also dramatically speed up innovation if some of our brightest minds in academia could step out of their ivory towers and apply their substantial IQ and skills towards solving the real and pressing problems of the AEC industry.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.

Related Archive Articles

  • Notes on the Synthesis of BIM
  • In this Viewpoint article, architect and educator Randy Deutsch assesses the design and construction industry's current efforts to produce and analyze vast amounts of information and proposes a call for a synthesis of its technology and collaborative work processes.
  • Got Macros? Scripting and Coding for BIM
  • In this article, Karen Kensek, Assistant Professor in USC's School of Architecture, advocates the writing and use of macros in AEC firms to improve the efficiency of BIM, which "out of the box" is not synchronized with the way firms work.
  • Measuring BIM's Disruption: Understanding Value Networks of BIM/VDC
  • In this article, John Tobin, Director of Architecture at EYP, shares his insights on how the two contrasting types of innovation, "sustaining" and "disruptive" — as popularized in the book, The Innovator's Dilemma — can be applied to the AEC technology industry.