Invicara BIM Assure: Cloud-Based Collaborative Model CheckerAECbytes Review (June 2, 2016)

In my recent article on “Automating Code Compliance in AEC,” I bemoaned the lack of progress in the application of technology to streamline the process of getting building approvals and permits from regulatory authorities, despite the fact that BIM—a critical component of the process—is now well established as the “go-to” technology for design and construction in the AEC industry. While the ultimate objective, the holy grail, for the approval process would be the complete automation of the code-checking process to determine compliance easily and quickly—perhaps at the design level itself, prior to the design even being “submitted” to the regulatory agencies for approval—the only progress on this front that has been made so far is the continuous steady development of the sole model-checking application that we have had so far, Solibri Model Checker. However, a new application for model checking, BIM Assure, will soon be launched, and it should hopefully give fresh impetus to the eventual goal of automating code-checking in AEC.

Let’s take a closer look at BIM Assure to see how it works and what it can currently do.

Background

BIM Assure is a new application that has been developed by Invicara, technically a startup company albeit one whose team comprises several veterans from the AEC technology industry—a fact that does help to inspire confidence in the company and its product. While the larger objective of the company is to “transform the way people create and use information about commercial buildings”— which might eventually involve the development of additional products—the focus of BIM Assure at the moment is to check the quality of a BIM model to ensure that it is accurate and contains all the data that will be needed for the purpose for which the model is being created (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A screenshot of BIM Assure that captures the essence of the application: checking a BIM model for the satisfaction of specific criteria.

The BIM model itself comes into BIM Assure through a Revit plug-in, which means that currently it has to be a Revit model. The ability to integrate directly with Revit allows the connectivity to be bidirectional—once the issues in the published model are determined, they can be brought back and viewed in Revit, making them easier to fix. Some changes that are non-geometric in nature, such as editing the properties of an element, can be synced back directly into the source model in Revit.

In keeping with the growing trend to make all software cloud-based, BIM Assure is also a cloud-based rather than a desktop application. Thus, not only is there is no real technical barrier to entry—with no application to install, maintain, and update—being on the cloud also opens the doors to making it collaborative, almost by default. All that is needed is to invite people and set the desired permissions, allowing multiple members of the project team to access the model, view any checks that have been run on it, or make the checks themselves. Being on the cloud also makes BIM Assure accessible from anywhere at any time, which means that there is, of course, an accompanying mobile app as well.

How it Works 

The starting point in BIM Assure is to sign up for an account, and once that is created, projects can be created within the account. Multiple projects can be created for the different building projects a firm may be working on, and once a project is created, members can be added to it with different permission levels based on whether they need to simply view the project or actually use the application to collaborate on the model-checking. Members can also be designated as a project owner or administrator, which gives them higher level capabilities for managing the project. It is also possible to add members at the level of the entire account, which would give them access to all the projects in that account.

When a project is created, it is empty and needs models to be uploaded to it. This is done, as mentioned earlier, through a Revit plug-in, available from BIM Assure for versions 2014, 2015, and 2016 of Revit. Once the correct plug-in has been installed, opening the model in Revit will show the BIM Assure plug-in under the Add-ins tab. Here, you can sign into your BIM Assure account and select the project in which you want the model to be uploaded (see the top image in Figure 2). The uploading currently works only for a 3D view and for visible elements, so any objects that do not need to be sent to BIM Assure need to be turned off. As shown in Figure 2, a project can have several models uploaded to it, and if the same model has already been uploaded previously, the new one will be uploaded as a new version, keeping the previous version intact. It is also possible to upload the individual disciplinary models of a project for disciple-specific checks as well as the fully integrated one for any cross-disciplinary checks that might be needed. The uploaded model can now be seen in BIM Assure, as shown in the lower image of Figure 2.

Figure 2. Uploading a Revit model into a BIM Assure project through the Revit plug-in provided by BIM Assure.

The integrated model viewer in BIM Assure lets you explore any uploaded model, with features that are common to most model viewers including navigational tools such as zoom, pan, orbit, and walk; the ability to show or hide selected elements as well as entire categories (Figure 3); and a transparency mode that allows selected elements to be seen more clearly in the context of the entire model. The navigation is smooth, even for large Revit models, and a useful aspect of the viewer is that you don’t have to wait for the entire model to load before you can starting exploring it. A progress bar on the right shows how much of the model has finished loading and indicates when the streaming is complete.  

Figure 3. The integrated viewer in BIM Assure allows a 3D model that has been uploaded to a project to be explored. In this example, all the curtain wall panels in the model are highlighted by selecting that category from the list of elements in the left panel.

Another aspect common in most model viewers is the ability to see the properties of an element, and this feature is available in BIM Assure as well. The direct integration with Revit brings in all the property data associated with an element—both the properties associated with the element type as well as that specific instance —when the model is uploaded, as shown in Figure 4, where a window object is selected and its properties are being viewed.

Figure 4. Seeing the properties, both type and instance, that were associated with an element in Revit and which are seamlessly imported into BIM Assure when the model is published from Revit.

The next step, the only one prior to running checks on the model, is what is known in BIM Assure as “normalization.” This is essentially the categorization of elements based on industry standards, using a data dictionary created by Invicara. When a model is uploaded to BIM Assure, it automatically goes through a normalization process in which all known elements are classified into standard categories. These categories can be seen by going to the Normalization tab, shown in Figure 5, which also shows the number of elements that were automatically placed into these categories. These categorized elements are referred to as normalized elements, and this process is important as any kind of model checking can only be done on normalized elements. There will usually be some elements that will remain uncategorized or non-normalized, and the Normalization tab also shows the percentage of the model that has been normalized—for example, the percentage is 93.61 for the model shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. The Normalization tab, showing the number of elements that were automatically normalized in different categories and the total normalization percentage of the model so far.

While the model does not have to be 100% normalized for it to be checked—the checks will simply ignore the non-normalized elements—it is helpful to normalize as many elements as possible, which is done through a process called mapping. Expanding the Non-Normalized category displays the list of all the non-normalized elements, as shown in Figure 6. You can then select a category of non-normalized elements and drill down a list of standard categories until you find the best match to assign it to. This new custom “mapping” will be applied to the current model as well as all models uploaded in the future; also, existing models that are already in BIM Assure can be “re-normalized” to apply the new mapping definitions. This mapping process can be applied to as many non-normalized elements as possible to increase the overall normalization percentage of the entire model. It is also possible that some elements that were already normalized have not been assigned to the desired category, in which case they can be reassigned to a different category and that mapping will be saved as well and automatically applied to future model uploads.    

Figure 6. Selecting a category of non-normalized elements and creating a custom mapping for it, which will be automatically applied in all future normalizations.

Model Checking: The Crux of the Application

Once a model has been normalized—to the extent that it can, based on the time that has been budgeted for this task—it can then be checked for the satisfaction of desired criteria. This “checking” in BIM Assure is done by attaching one or more “analyses” to the model. Each analysis, in turn, comprises one or more rules, which define the actual criteria that will be checked. You can create a new Analysis by selecting from existing analysis templates in which all the rules to carry out that check are included, such as the one shown in Figure 7, which checks the doors in an architectural model. As shown, it comes with seven rules, each of which perform individual checks on the doors in the model such as whether they have a valid assembly code, Omniclass number, and so on. A rule can be expanded to view its parameters and requirements in more detail. If required, new rules can also be added to this analysis, choosing from the many built-in rule definitions in BIM Assure. 

Figure 7. Adding an analysis created from an existing template, which already comes with relevant rules for that analysis, to a project.

Instead of selecting from an existing analysis temple, it is also possible to create from one from scratch and add desired rules to it. This was the case with the analysis to check an architectural model for COBie compliance, as shown in Figure 8, in which nine rules were added that can check the model individually to ensure that all elements have a COBie asset ID, bar code, and so on. This analysis can be saved as a template for future use if required.

Figure 8. The Phase 1 Arch COBie Model Checker analysis shown here was created from scratch and populated with relevant rules to check an architectural model for COBie compliance.

While it is possible to define many different kinds of Analyses in a project, when it comes to actually checking the model, can you select which particular analysis or analyses from these you would like to run. In the example shown in Figure 9, the architectural model is being checked again the single “ARCH - Check Doors” Analysis, which comprises a total of seven different rules that check if every door in the model is specified as required. Once the analysis has run, a summary of the result is displayed, with a link to view the issues graphically in the model. You can see exactly which rules have passed and which rules have failed, and for those rules that have failed, the actual number of elements that did not pass that rule.

Figure 9. Running a specific analysis on the model and viewing its results graphically, to see exactly how many elements have failed each rule in that analysis.

You don’t have to necessarily go back to Revit to make all these fixes—non-geometric ones can be made in BIM Assure itself. So in the example shown in Figure 9, we can see that all the 72 doors in the model are missing the manufacturer’s name. This can be easily fixed in BIM Assure—expanding the list shows all the doors, and you can then start with the door at the top of the list to add the manufacturer’s name. Fortunately, this is a Type property rather than an Instance property, which means that adding the value here (see Figure 10) will make the fix for all the doors of the same type. Running the analysis again should reduce the number of failures, and this process can be repeated iteratively until all the non-geometric fixes that can be made in BIM Assure are completed.

Figure 10. Editing the element data for the rules that failed when the analysis was run.

The final step in the process is to open this edited model back in Revit. The edits that were made to the element properties of that model in BIM Assure are also brought in and are clearly indicated, as shown in Figure 11, giving you the choice to apply these edits to the model. Opting to do so will change the properties of the associated elements, as can be verified by opening the Type Properties dialog for an element.

Figure 11. Syncing back the edited model in Revit highlights the changes made to element data in BIM Assure, which you can now choose to apply to the model in Revit.

Analysis and Conclusions

I found BIM Assure very intuitive and straightforward to use, and the Revit integration is impressive. The only aspect of the workflow that seemed to be somewhat tedious was the normalization process—so many elements remained uncategorized that it would take a lot of custom mappings to increase the overall normalization percentage of the model. Of course, over time, the “remembered” mappings will make this less of a problem, but it could still be a significant barrier to entry for widespread adoption. It’s helpful that even a non-normalized model can be checked, but having too many non-normalized elements in the model makes it harder to trust the results. It would be great if some workaround could be developed to normalization so it does not have to be done at all—it would definitely make BIM Assure easier to use. As far as I know, this additional step is not needed in Solibri Model Checker, the only application that directly competes with BIM Assure. (However, Solibri Model Checker does require the model to have the correct IFC information to run its checks; if not, the fixes need to be made in the BIM authoring application.)

The other aspect of BIM Assure that I found a little disappointing in the current version is the kind of checking that can be done, or, in BIM Assure’s terminology, the kinds of “analyses” that can be run on a model. At the moment, these are mostly discrete checks such as whether the required elements exist and that they have the needed properties such as ID, assembly code, manufacturer, material, fire rating, dimensions (for doors, windows, etc.), and so on. No doubt, these are essential checks for tasks such as quantity take-off, estimating, LOD, COBie compliance, and handover—for example, a check that every room has a smoke detector would be required for handover. BIM Assure does not yet have the ability for more complicated checks that would require understanding of the geometry of the model and the relationships between different elements, of the kind that would be needed, for instance, in checking a design for ADA accessibility, emergency egress, and so on.

However, given that the application is still so new, there is plenty of time for it to grow and become capable of performing more sophisticated checks in the future. New rules are constantly being added, and the eventual plan is to create an open platform where rules can also be developed by third part vendors and “plugged” into the system. The fact that it is cloud-based should make this much easier—imagine different “analysis sets” for different building types and construction types in different climates and locations being developed all over the world and being available for users to choose from for checking a design for the satisfaction of specific, localized criteria. BIM Assure is far from that at the moment, but it seems to have a good foundation for the realization of this vision. And while the application works only with Revit for now, the plan going forward is to also support other BIM applications, either through direct integration or through an open standard like the IFC.

As BIM grows more pervasive, we definitely need more applications that can check BIM models to ensure that they have been correctly modeled and have all the information needed to support any downstream activities. We have had only Solibri Model Checker for this purpose so far, and the availability of another solution for model-checking is a welcome—and long-overdue—development.

Of course, if would be great if some basic checks could be done in the BIM application itself—similar to how a word processing application has a built-in spelling and grammar checker—leaving an application like BIM Assure to focus on more higher-level checks of the kind that we would need to eventually automate the code-compliance process in AEC.

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.


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