Q&A: Erin Rae Hoffer, Autodesk

Building information modeling, a technology that allows architects, engineers and contractors to create integrated, three-dimensional digital design documents, is at once a catalyst for tremendous change within the design/construction community and a source of confusion among design professionals and project owners.

The painstakingly hand-drawn blueprints of yesteryear, as well as the more sophisticated 2-D and 3-D design documents developed through CAD software, are being eclipsed by BIM and its ability to coordinate design documents between architects and engineers and streamline the fabrication process for contractors.

Design firms willing to embrace the technology have the potential to create 3-D models of a project, complete with graphical or non-graphical representations of architectural and structural information — down to the weight of the last support beam and the type of bolt used to secure it — and electrical and mechanical systems, including the make and model of individual HVAC units. Owners have the opportunity to see how their projects will look early in the design phase, while contractors may experience fewer construction clashes in the field.

However, as awareness of the technology grows and its capabilities evolve, the definition of BIM becomes more nebulous and far-reaching, and questions begin to arise about potential drawbacks and issues of responsibility in the era of collaboration and shared knowledge. Erin Rae Hoffer, an architect and industry programs manager with Autodesk Inc., a San Rafael, Calif.-based company that specializes in BIM technology, discussed the topic with Correctional News.


Q: There are many definitions of BIM. Some say it’s a process and others say it’s a tool. How would you define it?

A: Autodesk definitely defines it as a process. Initially, it was attached to certain products from certain vendors, but, over time, the industry evolved in its use of building information modeling.

My personal anecdote is that I came out of architecture school in the early 1980s and at that time nobody was using CAD. I happened to have a background in it because of where I went to school and I got to see the industry transform over about 10 years or so from where people originally said, “Why would I ever want to do that?” to where everybody did it.
When I began to understand a little bit more about BIM a few years ago, I started to get the feeling that it was déjà vu all over again. People were transforming again.

In a way, this is dramatically different, because it’s not about adapting a tool to a process that exists, which is what happened maybe 20 years ago. This is more about reviving the way we do our work as an industry and capitalizing on the opportunities for more effective projects, higher quality projects and an opportunity for the projects to be done in way that is sustainable, which is mission-critical.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about BIM?

A: The most common misconception is that it’s just another CAD program. It’s a bigger change than that.

People also think that it’s just one product that comes in a single software package. We try to correct that because I think BIM offers more opportunity than that. There are several products, from the twinkle-in-the-eye stage to concept and design to planning, analysis and simulation. All of these lead ultimately to construction, then management, then ownership. There are a bunch of products along the line. Of course, nobody uses all of them.

Q: Some professionals have described BIM as being in its infancy. Can you identify four or five major growing pains for BIM right now?

A: I’m not sure that it’s in its infancy. I suppose it depends on whom you ask and where you are in the world. Maybe it’s an adolescent. BIM has shown itself to be incredibly capable and it has numerous possibilities. It has a lot of talents, but perhaps it’s starting to chafe against some of the traditional contexts.

With any change to a very structured, professional industry, certain things have to be done carefully. We need to think about each practice and what the business models are for that company. That goes for owners, designers, contractors and everybody who participates in the building process. Each of those businesses is thinking about how it can do BIM, but do it cautiously so it can survive.

The economic conditions today are somewhat limiting for certain types of activities, but, on the other hand, they’re liberating. I’ve heard people tell me that things are little slower in their office, so they have more time to transition into something new. It’s a two-edged sword.
Nothing this dramatic and different can really happen over night. It’s like an adolescent who can’t suddenly become a mature individual capable of taking care of children.

You have to work through it step by step. Each firm has to understand how to get people trained and individuals have to learn new skills and get good at them. Beyond the individual level, teams have to learn how they work together within the firm, how they share data and solve tech hurdles, and also do what clients want them to do. Then it goes to the level beyond firms, where practices and businesses are learning how to inter-relate.

Q: How has the need for new skills impacted the rate at which architectural firms adopt BIM?

A: When you’re talking about a move to BIM, it’s not just upgrading your CAD package. In order to leverage it and get the benefit, you have to rethink your whole approach to a project and your whole business model. Some firms are pretty well-tooled to do that.

There are many practices that have a lot of people who are ready to learn something new.

Some firms are bringing in younger people who have been exposed to the latest technology in school programs. Each firm has a different way of refreshing the skill base. There is a lot of access out there to training. It’s more a matter of finding the time.

As far as retooling your business or rethinking it, there’s a whole network of resources that know our products and work directly with firms and help them think strategically through what they might want to do in the future.

Q: What role are clients playing in the adoption of BIM?

A: Clients are probably the number one driver of any change. Firms are thinking about clients — that’s what you do if you’re on the architecture side. A few years ago, I was at an academic institution and the president of the institution came to me and said he had heard a lot of people talking about BIM and wanted to know why. So, I went to survey my colleagues’ market interest, called a bunch of people and asked what was going on with their practices and whether they were looking at BIM. Many of them said, “Well, we have heard that the U.S. General Services Administration is going to require projects to be done using BIM, so we’re going to do it.”

The GSA is the biggest owner in this country. So, the owner’s voice has been heard very clearly and strongly.

Q: Is BIM intended to be a one-size-fits-all process? Is it suitable for all types of construction projects?

A: My personal opinion is that it is intended to be one-size-fits-all. I’ve heard of people doing very small residential projects. One- to two-person firms have found that with BIM they can expand the size of the firm in terms of capability, without expanding the footprint of the firm in terms of people.

We’re now starting to get a lot of interest from contractors and engineers. It seems like BIM is flexible enough as an idea and the products are out there so that people can do whatever they need to do. It goes all the way from houses to high-rises.

Q: What are the added costs on the design side for using BIM?

A: In some cases it means you might spend more time up front in design, but you might save a lot on construction by eliminating all the collisions, which can be very costly. You have to look at the whole picture.

Q: What happens when design firms are working with contractors that have not yet used BIM? Would they have to train contractors and subs?

A: One firm showed me their model and they mandate that all of their subs and contracting engineers use the BIM approach so they could integrate their models and do the clash detection. They’re not training them. What they’re saying is, “If you want to work with us, this is how we work and here are our requirements for your piece of the project.”

Some firms learn on the job. I think normally we would like to hear someone say they’re going to go through a week or two of training and really understand the process before they dive in and start a project, but some firms don’t do that.

Q: What are some other hot topics surrounding BIM right now?

A: One of the hot topics is interoperability. People always ask about that. If you look at BIM as being a multiple-vendor universe of options, how do you navigate it? Just within the Autodesk products, people want to know how to get from authoring their model to doing sustainable analysis to making a movie to show a client.

There is one format, gbXML, which is for green building. It was invented by Autodesk, but now it is managed by a consortium. Autodesk is a participant, but doesn’t control it. We want it to be open as a standard. Our products will write a gbXML file that can then be read by other programs for sustainability analysis. That is something people want to be able to understand how to do.

Q: As an open, continuously updated database, who is ultimately responsible?

A: The American Institute of Architects and the Associated General Contractors of America, which is connected to ConsensusDOCS, have helped out with this question by developing a set of documents that cover integrated projects.

One answer is to look at those groups, because they have BIM documents that lay out a project in detail: you want to work jointly, here is the way someone should manage the process. However, that’s not the way you have to do it, so other companies have created their own approach.

Some firms are really open. It’s something that has to be negotiated on the project, but it can go many different ways.

Q: What are some of the liability issues that can arise on a BIM-driven project?

A: It’s almost the same as if you shared CAD files. Some people at the beginning of the CAD movement were really concerned that someone might make an erroneous assumption based on a CAD file. Designers wanted to clarify what needed to be built without specifying how it was to be built. Under traditional contracts, designers are not supposed to tell contractors how to do what they do. That’s the contractor’s responsibility.

So, one of the concerns was, what if there is some confusion about who is responsible for what? What if something is built incorrectly? What if the model is used in an inappropriate way? The model is only dimensionally accurate to a certain degree, and the contractor uses it to fabricate something. If it’s not fabricated correctly and the contractor has to redo it, they feel the architect should pay for it. That may be the nature of the concerns about liability with building information modeling. Models are generally built for a certain purpose. A model may not have every single thing that is really in the building. It might not have every nut and bolt, and designers do not want there to be a misunderstanding.

Q: On the owner’s side, is there an increased risk of unrealistic expectations?

A: I think owners are expecting more because of growing awareness. At a conference I attended this month for commercial developers, several people came up to me and asked about BIM and were wondering if it would be appropriate for different kinds of projects.

People know enough about it now to know that it’s valuable. They aren’t at the point yet where they’re specifying it. I think owner demand will increase, but I don’t know that expectations will ever spiral out of control. What may happen is that owner expectations will need to be corrected, or owners may need some education. Hopefully, before they get into a contractual arrangement, they will really understand how to negotiate with the other parties about what is realistic.

Q: Is it unrealistic for owners to assume that because their project is using BIM it will be error-free and completed in a dramatically reduced timeframe?

A: That would be unrealistic. They may be hoping for certain things, but I think in the end they ultimately would have to set realistic expectations during the negotiations process, because they would be working with firms that have used the technology before and would be able to explain the limitations.

Erin Rae Hoffer is an architect and industry programs manager with Autodesk Inc. She is a LEED-accredited professional with more than 25 years of experience in computer-aided design.