The last 30 years has seen accelerating changes to the technology employed by engineers and scientists to simulate and analyze our world. Whether one is performing biomedical research into the human genome, pushing the boundaries on new semiconductors or designing a building, computers and software have become ubiquitous and essential tools. Technological advances initially come at a high price, and the construction industry is no exception to that.
Building information modeling (BIM) technology saw early adoption within the construction industry in high-value projects. The benefit of clash detection and optimizing construction sequencing for processes like foundation excavation, mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) installation and final finishes in a virtual world prior to execution in the real world saved tremendous amounts of time and money.
As we’ve seen with technologies first developed for space exploration that have become commonplace in our lives (scratch-resistant lenses, LASIK eye-tracking, memory foam, GPS), the building industry is seeing the widespread adoption of BIM into the design and construction of residential structures, even down to the level of single-family homes. Most commonly today, BIM is used by the architectural consultant to bring life to 2D plans. Most people who don’t spend their lives interpreting building plans (and some who do) struggle to visualize what the drawings are depicting. Regardless of technical ability, everybody can understand that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a 3D model is worth exponentially more. Architects quickly realized the benefit of this technology to communicate their designs, and as software and hardware costs have dropped, BIM has become ubiquitous in the architectural design profession.
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It has taken longer to penetrate other disciplines related to building design on the single-family level. Initially, software programs that were widely used for architectural modeling (such as SketchUp) had limited use for engineers of any type. The software used by structural engineers could not import information from the architectural models into structural analysis programs, and on small, simple projects, the cost to create a 3D structural model wasn’t warranted. Things are changing very rapidly though. In the last few years, lumber suppliers who also panelize wall framing have begun creating structural models accurate down to the last stud and all connecting hardware. On complicated homes and townhomes, this greatly streamlines the building process.
BIM hasn’t been fully embraced by all consultants involved in home-building, but it is much closer. For complicated residential structures that contain unique structural steel framing, for example, we can design and predict the behavior of the framing using software that interacts much more seamlessly with programs like Revit than in the past. As software costs have dropped, programs that were previously unaffordable are now economically viable. The larger cost now is associated with the learning curve in becoming proficient with the software.
Within the next few years, BIM technology will almost certainly encompass all aspects of residential construction, including initial architectural and interiors concepts, MEP and structural design, material takeoffs and quality assurance/quality control during construction, and finally, as an as-built 3D model for the homeowner to track and manage energy usage on a room-by-room level.
BIM is in the last stages of moving from space program to living room, but it’s still early days with respect to the innovations and full application of its utility. BIM today is in a similar position to Velcro in the early 80s, and I expect that soon we’ll be amazed by how homeowners utilize the original virtual models that were initially intended only for construction.