New frontiers—Identifying opportunities in BIM

Landscape architects are figuring out what BIM can do for them—and if it’s worth it
BIM is a powerful solution, but it’s not for everyone.environment concept

Building information modeling is a common tool in architecture, but landscape architects have been slow to adopt software that can help them take advantage of this process.

The biggest obstacle, perhaps, is that most BIM software wasn’t created specifically for landscape architects, and it’s difficult to shoehorn those products into their workflows. Joshua Orth, principal at Norris Design in Denver, compared it to translating English into Chinese.

AutoCAD and other computer-aided design software programs are an “advanced form of a T-square and triangle,” he told Colorado Patio & Landscape. They help landscape architects in drafting, but they aren’t materially different from what practitioners are used to.

BIM, on the other hand, requires a whole new way of thinking, one that focuses on process over product.

“The idea of building information modeling isn’t all about the idea of a building itself; it’s more about the process. You’re building a virtual example of your project in the software,” said Eric Gilbey, product marketing manager for Vectorworks, a BIM software provider.

Gilbey noted that while site drawings are a useful way to show clients how their project will look, “ultimately, the end game for the drawing set is to show an installer how to actually implement the project.”

‘Smart’ objects

BIM is a powerful solution, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, the very thing that makes BIM so powerful is one of the biggest obstacles to new users, Gilbey said.

BIM software relies on a library of “smart objects” that includes important data about each object that an architect is placing in the model. Objects have a set of parameters built into them that determine things like the mature size of an ornamental tree or the layers of material in a hardscape product.

“The one part that I think they’re not used to is the idea that these objects can be smart,” Gilbey said of landscape architects and designers.

“The smartness actually helps them design more intuitively because spacings are now automated, plant counts and labeling are now automated.”

For example, he said, landscape architects won’t have to double-check that a stairway’s tread and rise meet code requirements because they will have already established the code requirements when they created the parameters for stairways.

“They do have to prepopulate some of those objects with identities and information,” he acknowledged, but “once you [do], all of those objects are ready to go the next time.”

Still, the initial legwork required to implement BIM in a landscape architecture firm is a major obstacle.

“The manufacturers don’t provide us with those families that we need to construct our elements” in the software, Norris Design’s Orth explained. “There’s a lot of work on our part to have to build all that stuff.”

Orth said some manufacturers are recognizing the need for compatible product specs and are “working forward in preparing that information, but there hasn’t been a big demand for it yet.”

Implementation is a challenge when introducing any new technology or software, and BIM is no different. Landscape architects “have to stop what they’re doing and learn a new system, [which] means that they’re no longer in a billable hours situation,” Gilbey pointed out.

There’s also a concern that after spending a lot of unbillable time inputting specs to create a library of smart objects, a competing firm will get its hands on it, Orth noted.

Small firms may find that BIM is too much for the types of projects they accept. They may feel like if they’re not getting paid to provide a 3D model, why should they?

“They might be thinking the only thing they can afford to do is get the 2D plans and elevations and construction documents out the door,” Gilbey said.

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