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New Frontiers—Identifying Opportunities in BIM

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.

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“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.

However, a BIM product helps landscape architects generate documents from section views to materials specs more efficiently.

“In this process of designing in 2D and 3D at the same time, they cut out that need to go into a 3D model and make it again,” Gilbey explained. “Any changes that are being made are happening instantaneously in both representations because they are one and the same object.”

Telling clients what they want

BIM can be a buzzy term for clients who aren’t really sure what it is, but have heard that it’s a high-tech solution that can make their project more efficient or ease compliance with codes. Now they want everyone on their design team to be using it, but they don’t really know what they’re asking for.

“We’re asked often if we can do our work in [Autodesk’s] Revit,” Orth said, but when he presses clients on what specifically they want from his firm, they can’t really say.

“We say, ‘What do you want us to deliver? Is it a model? Is it just plans? Is it just the ability to integrate within that?’ We really haven’t gotten an answer on that,” he said.

Landscape architects who work with architects and engineers who use BIM have sometimes converted a model into a 2D plan and drafted their designs on top of that, providing their partners with hyperlinked PDFs of the final document, Orth said.

“It’s not really BIM,” he said. “It’s more [like] a web page.”

Opportunities for BIM

With all the obstacles that come with implementing BIM in a landscape architecture firm, why bother? Who, other than the most neurotic perfectionist, would be masochistic enough to spend so much time on something they might not even be able to bill for?

There are some clear opportunities to use BIM to create more efficient workflows. Irrigation design is one such area, Orth said.

“Irrigation design is no different than any other MEP stuff in the building, so that plugs in very well,” he said.

Landscape architects who work with developers or large property owners may also feel compelled to adopt BIM because their clients are using it.

“A third of our clients … speak in the language of BIM, so in order to play in or participate in the work that they’re doing, we have to do our work in the BIM environment,” Orth said.

Does BIM have a future in landscape architecture?

“We’re a bunch of old dogs,” Orth said of the industry, and learning new tricks is always a challenge. However, he believes that the next generation of designers and landscape architects will be well-positioned to use BIM from the start and bypass the obstacles that have slowed its adoption in established firms.

“Fortunately, a lot of people coming out of school are getting exposed to it, so we’ll see it become more integrated into our practice as we get new staff,” he said.

Orth stressed that to fully embrace BIM, firms need to use it all the time, something even his firm hasn’t started doing yet.

“BIM is like speaking a foreign language. Unless you do it all the time, you lose those skills,” he acknowledged.

He recommended identifying or hiring someone to be a BIM project manager. “We [have] 150 people at Norris Design. To train everybody how to use Revit is a pretty big task,” he said. Training two or three people who can continuously develop their skills and convert 2D drawings into BIM models on behalf of others on the team might be a more effective use of a firm’s resources.

“They learn how to do it efficiently, and we’re still able to go through our normal design process,” he said.

Orth believes that architects who want to embrace BIM need to focus on process not product.

“It’s really that front-end thinking. We have to begin with the end in mind,” he said. “We’re going to create a product that is really a digital prototype, so the mechanics of that need to be considered even in the planning stage.”


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