BIM and specifications writing: The great disconnect

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Video: Instructional video for Innovative Technology’s BIM Model Probe

Software to associate specifications writing with BIM fails to capture market traction and relevance in Canada and the U.S.

The idea seems simple (and valuable) enough: If Building Information Modelling (BIM) provides architects, engineers, contractors and owners the capacity to resolve conflicts, test out ideas before they are carved in stone, and improve long-term building reliability and efficiency, surely BIM could be a significant aspect of the specification process for virtually all projects.

However, the story turns out to not be quite as straightforward as it seems. Despite initiatives to develop BIM-relevant software by several organizations in Canada and the U.S., uptake has been limited and most specifications continue to be done the old way, with word processing programs and limited if any connection to the BIM process.

These issues are reflected in challenging business circumstances for two Canadian specification software providers, Digicon Information Inc. and Innovative Technology Inc., who have independently developed different BIM-related solutions, but have failed to attract significant market interest in their BIM innovations despite several years of effort.

The story isn’t much different in the U.S., says Beth Stroshane, managing partner at Applied Building Information LLC, an independent specifications consulting business in Seattle, Washington.

Stroshane has used two U.S. BIM specifications software products, e-SPECS and BSD Linkman, and says neither are providing enough value to offset the effort of making them work. She has presented her findings at Construction Specification Institute (CSI) conferences. CSI is the U.S. counterpart to Construction Specifications Canada (CSC). CSC represents and certifies specifications in Canada.

The problem of building effective BIM specifications software is “not Canadian,” she said. “It is pretty universal, the software does what the software people say it does, but the architects don’t do what the software people assume they do.”

In other words, she says, there is a disconnect between what the software assumes happens as the project evolves from concept to design and then construction and what happens in practice.

She said the problem relates to the way designs evolve and the way design teams work.
Many people look at creating a BIM as collecting “a mountain of data, and as the project goes along, you add more and more information.”

“The challenge with that kind of view is it isn’t how projects work,” she said. “It’s more like a moving train” as different ideas and material options are considered, weighted, and then decided they are put on the train and pushed off the train”. If it was continually added to the “mountain of data” there would be six options for each material. The act of “pushing all of these options through to BIM models creates an unwieldy data volume that taxes the limits of many of the programs, and does not provide enough value to outweigh the effort,” she said.

There are other problems with BIM implementations at the specification stage, she says. Generally, the cost in time, learning and resources is loaded on the architects – who cannot collect additional fees to cover this expense – while the benefit flows to the contractor who, using BIM, can resolve job conflicts, discover efficiencies, and reduce costs.

This has resulted in situations where contractors employ architects to help manage the integration process, but at this stage, the specifications are not being used in this way, she said. In theory, BIM modelling and specifications would work well within the design/build construction model, but she says there are still problems with the way professional service providers think and view specifications.

This lack of uptake in Canada is reflected by the Digicon, Inc.’s story. The specification software provider has an alliance with CSC and company president David Watson says it introduced BIMdrive as a tool to integrate specifications writing and BIM about three years ago.

The company has sold its tool to some large organizations but Watson frankly admits there isn’t much interest in the resources currently on the market.

“BIM technology and that way of doing things, it’s not even close to being here yet,” he said. “Early adaptors are doing some good things with it, but most of the practitioners haven’t embraced it.”

Watson says he believes less than five per cent of Canada’s architects and specification writers are working with BIM.

These observations have been borne out with interviews and email exchanges with several architects and engineers across the country. One engineer in eastern Ontario said, when asked about his potential interest in BIM specifications software, asked: “What is BIM?”

Although that level of conceptual ignorance would be the exception rather than the norm, only a small portion of people interviewed indicated interest in using or exploring the technology and for those who responded affirmatively, their interest certainly lacked urgency.

Watson said his problem in part relates to the way specifications are worded. In North America, specification writers tend to use narrative language, which conveys the message, but doesn’t fit well within BIM model databases.

The story is different in Europe, where the natural specifications language matches more closely BIM coding and software requirements.

He said he didn’t have the resources to make the major adaptions needed with his small five-person Alberta-based firm, so has addressed the problem in part by selling his business to NBS, a global provider of construction information and knowledge management services, based in the UK, which is associated with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Watson says he expects he will have new and much more robust BIM software available built on the European resources within the next few years.

Meanwhile, Michael Thornber of Innovative Technology Inc., in Ottawa says he has sought to keep the BIM/specifications process as simple as possible and related to the way the specification writers do their work, using tools such as the National Master Specifications and word processing programs.

His company’s BIM Model Probe allows specification writers to research and pull out tables and models through IFC open data files from Autodesk/Revit and Graphisofe ARCHICAD, which he says control virtually all of the BIM market. With ITI’s tool, specifiers don’t need to change the way they work or think, and they can build BIM resources into their specifications without breaking away from their familiar word-processing tools. (Both companies distribute software for the National Master Specification, and Innovative Technology has an alliance with the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC).)

“I realized that we need to keep things simple, and not try to reinvent the wheel,” said Thornber. “Our tool pulls the BIM model data into the specs – but these specs are written and built overall on the traditional model, so the specification writer really doesn’t need to become a BIM modeller or database expert.”

“The consultant can continue designing in 3D CAD, and the spec writer keeps with her editing program,” he said. “They communicate via IFC files forward to the specification and text files backward to the CAD tool so they do not need to understand each others’ job.”

That approach could solve the functionality and learning-curve problem, but Thornber is having trouble finding enough specification writers actually working with BIM who would be ready to evaluate his product.

Beth Stroshane suggests another solution to the puzzle. If narrative specifications need to be included in BIM models, they could be uploaded to URL addresses, and the relevant pages can be linked within the appropriate data points on the BIM software.

That way, there won’t be a need to mess around with the database, overburdening it with more (changing) detail than is necessary, she said.

Stroshane says she keeps looking at the BIM specifications products on the market (she hasn’t tried the Canadian-introduced BIM Model Probe or BIMdrive yet) and found they do not provide enough value to her business to justify the effort.

“The software tools cost a couple of grand a year, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the billable hours it takes to maintain the data on the moving train,” she said. “I’ve actually done it, used the software, and found it didn’t provide enough value to justify doing it again.”

She described the marketing material for software as being like a television car commercial, showing a daring driver handling his car in amazing ways – with the fine print “professional driver on closed course – do not attempt.”

“The software demos show what is possible if a group of 10 interns took three months to create something as sexy as possible,” she said. “They don’t have a fixed fee, they don’t have to make money while making the software do that.”

“In a real project, the work changes six times, and I’d never get hired if I priced 10 interns to make my specification software operate like that.”

“The question we need to ask, is not what the software can do, but what the humans have to make the software do that,” Stroshane said.

“If companies cannot pay the humans to do what they have to do to make the software perform within their fees, then the software’s not going to be adopted.”

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