It is a new and increasingly digital world out there for the design and construction industry. In recent years we have seen the rapid adoption and maturation of technologies that only recently seemed in their infancy.
Architects and engineers have been flag-bearers in the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) to improve efficiency, achieve consistency in documentation and reduce conflicts during construction. On a visualisation front, we are only beginning to see the potential of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) for immersive experiences during the design process. In this new frontier of information abundance, where does specification fit into this equation and is its purpose and relevance under threat?
In November 2016, the NBS (National Building Specification) sought to gain new insights into how the rise of new technologies was affecting the specification process. The report explored the current and future landscape by surveying over 500 respondents who have varying levels of involvement in specification. The results found that 94% of respondents have experienced difficulties when producing or using a specification. Although, with regards to BIM, only 30% of respondents believe BIM will eventually replace specifications. So if BIM isn’t completely replacing a specification anytime soon and specifiers are experiencing continual hurdles when producing a specification, what does the future relationship between all these parts look like?
The why and I of BIM
At its core, BIM is a more holistic, digital-first and intelligent way of designing and constructing buildings. Its goal is to provide a single model to exchange information between project parties – from the architect to the engineer, to the contractor. The “B” and the “M” in BIM are fairly straightforward. The “B” refers to the building aspect, while the “M” refers to the digital model of the building where information about the building is stored. The most interesting part and the beating heart of BIM lies within the “I”. Where traditional design processes focus on graphic representation; BIM aims to handle both the visual and non-visual aspects – things such as product lifetimes, energy efficiency and sound absorption. All this information is key to managing a building’s lifecycle. In a typical project, there may be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pieces of information.
All of this information relies on BIM objects. These BIM objects are pieces of visual information that represent products and geometry. The objects are visual in appearance and behaviour, to allow for positioning in a model and also to determine any problems earlier in the process. As the driving force behind the BIM process, it is crucial that these objects provide a range of details and properties beyond simply physical geometry. A well produced BIM object provides all the necessary parameters for design and validation but not so many that it convolutes and slows the process. For example, if the BIM object represents a lighting fixture, it might contain properties around power consumption so the model can be analysed for energy efficiency. The importance of manufacturers developing BIM objects that are best-practice and easy to access cannot be overstated.
In this world of BIM where we have digital imagery and associated information on many aspects of a design and the building products assigned, where does a specification tie-in? In many ways, the specification documentation is the link in the chain that ties everything together. It prescribes the performance criteria of building products, references the standards that are applicable and the quality of the systems that will be used.
Manufacturer, meet specifier
In the NBS Specification Survey, 69% of respondents voiced that they rely on manufacturers for assistance and support in product selection and specification. In addition to this, 57% of respondents mentioned they collect information from manufacturers. It is clear that architects, engineers and specifiers value input from manufacturers, particularly with the sheer number of architectural products available on the market.
Manufacturers should view themselves as educators and collaborators rather than as simply product providers. They should be supporting the industry through the entire BIM and specification journey, providing education and input to meet performance criteria and understanding design intent. Architects require varying levels of information and detail through the design process; manufacturers should understand and build user experiences that mirror this journey.
From that initial research phase, manufacturer websites need to provide easily accessible product imagery, technical data and project case studies. Most importantly, their product library needs to be easily searchable and configurable. The majority of architectural product libraries are large and sprawling, with a significant number of SKUs (stock keeping units). How an architect can navigate and reach a product that meets their design intent is crucial to the user experience. It’s a challenge that is often overlooked in a conversation that focuses predominantly on the creation of BIM objects.
The BIM objects provided by manufacturers and the user experience for navigating their product library should go hand in hand. The level of information and detail provided at each point in the design process should always be taken into consideration. A deluge of information and data 100% of the time isn’t the answer. Manufacturers should work with project teams more as a trusted advisor, delivering expert input where needed.
The specification workflow
So how do all these moving parts play together? You have a website or portal for navigating product libraries and BIM objects. You have the BIM environment, and you have the specification process. There is no one size fits all solution; it’s a puzzle that continues to be researched and iterated over time. While there is no definitive solution right now to solve all inefficiencies, there is a general consensus that calls for more coordination and collaboration not just between project parties but even with manufacturers.
BIM has opened the door to greater sharing of information at the early stages of a project. The next step is to find new ways to automate more parts of the specification process, potentially working alongside BIM. What this looks like in the future is already being looked at by a number of software companies that are building BIM specification applications. As with any new technology, there are significant challenges still to be overcome. The two principle challenges for BIM specification applications is the way a specification changes several times over a project and the way specification is traditionally written versus how BIM models data.
It’s most certainly an exciting future that awaits, where there will be a more holistic integration between specification systems and BIM; and improving collaboration between all parties of a project.
New ways to visualise a design
Virtual reality, augmented reality and now mixed reality have taken tremendous strides over the last two years. Both Google and Apple have released their own AR technologies in the market, accelerating adoption and development of the technology rapidly in the last year. It is only logical that the design and construction industries adopt some of this technology, particularly with the rise of BIM.
On a virtual reality front, end users can now walk through a project to understand the built environment. Many architecture firms around Australia are starting to build a VR workflow into their firms, leveraging the technology to create more immersive experiences and potentially fast-track approvals. While virtual reality simulates a completely new environment, augmented reality supplements the real world environment with virtual elements. It allows users to view a 3D model in a real-world environment, providing greater insight into the proposed solution.
Perhaps the most interesting technology of all is mixed reality, which combines the virtual and real-world in a way where a user can completely interact with both real and virtual environments. Architects can project a BIM model into real world sites, opening the door to a whole new world of communicating ideas and collaboration. Products and design materials can now be evaluated in a real space, making product selection and evaluation more interactive and powerful than ever.
It’s only just the beginning in this transformation of the design and construction industry. With the adoption of BIM, VR and other tools becoming more and more wide-spread, there is great anticipation surrounding what comes next. It is perhaps in artificial intelligence and automation where the next great leap will come with a drive to connect the dots between all these new technologies. It is only logical to take this immense amount of data collected in BIM and harness it to automate a lot of processes.
In many ways as the BIM process has advanced, the specification preparation process has become overlooked and cumbersome; requiring a lot of administrative effort and time. There is tremendous scope in the industry for manufacturers and software developers alike to find new avenues to simplify the process for specifiers. It’s uncertain what the specifying landscape will exactly look like in the years to come, but there’s no doubt the processing of this new information and collaboration between all involved will be key.
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