Engineering a BIMStorm

By Kimon Onuma, FAIA, Onuma Inc., Pasadena, Calif. March 1, 2009

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High-impact decisions that affect a building’s performance can be made at early design stages when engineering input has the highest potential impact. Web-enabled building information modeling (BIM) tools allow specifiers to position themselves as profitable information managers and can yield great value for clients.

A traditional engineering process is very linear—waiting for the architect to complete his or her task before the engineer becomes involved. This is the limitation of current processes. The American Institute of Architects Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) calls for earlier and more frequent involvement by all stakeholders throughout the project, and this process promotes interaction by those who typically would only be reacting to previous decisions before they are set in stone. IPD allows specifiers to have an early impact on project decisions, reducing costly overtime to change bad decisions or rapidly visualize scenarios before they are set in stone, creating a better end-product.

When BIM is web-enabled, it supports stakeholders’ ability to interact in real-time through a model as the communication medium. Typically design decisions on a building’s form and MEP systems are made in later stages, reacting to earlier decisions that are difficult to change. IPD calls for stakeholder collaboration in earlier design stages.

Breaking down the linear process of design decisions opens up huge opportunities. It is also a sustainable process for the building industry, as there is exponential value in having real-time expert advice throughout the design lifecycle.

Meanwhile, building industry tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The amount of data related to projects and buildings is growing exponentially. The task of categorizing and accessing the information is adding another dimension to the BIM process. For some, BIM inundation is creating BIM aversion, at a time when we need to be versed in BIM.

So where does one go to become BIM versed in a short amount of time with little cost, and in a way that is experiential and fun? Try a BIMStorm—a web-based, hands-on workshop that enables stakeholders to be part of a live collaborative BIM process. BIMStorms bring together many experts, use a variety of interoperable tools, and demonstrate how knowledge from owners, engineers, architects, facility managers, and the public is connected. As an online learning and collaborating environment, BIMStorms are like industry sandboxes in which engineers interact on one or more projects. They give engineers an opportunity to see how colleagues use BIM, and a place to practice and hone new skills.

BIMStorm tools

When considering whether to participate in a BIMStorm, it may seem extremely complex. How is anyone expected to know how to use all of these tools? The answer is: You do not need to know them all. Each participant can use tools of his or her choice and interact with others. The collaboration and communication that happens through the tools are what drive BIMStorm. Novices in technology may be seasoned experts in engineering or design, and they are encouraged to participate because their knowledge is valuable data that can be harnessed.

The following are some of the tools used in a BIMStorm. Using all of the tools is not required.

  • A model server

  • Internet

  • Desktop BIM applications

  • ArchiCAD

  • Revit

  • VectorWorks

  • Other industry foundation class (IFC)-capable BIM software

  • Geographic information systems (GIS)

  • Google Earth and Map

  • Virtual Earth

  • ESRI

  • Spreadsheet

A BIMStorm model server:

  • Is a web-enabled multi-user platform to access BIM

  • Provides instant BIM access with a simple user interface to data

  • Manages BIMs at a portfolio level

  • Permits Import and Export from Revit with Add On

  • Permits Import and Export from ArchiCAD with Add On

  • Permits Import and Export to other IFC BIM applications

  • Exports geo-referenced BIM to GIS and Google Earth

  • Exports to other formats such as Excel and SketchUp

  • Stores hundreds of thousand of BIMs

  • Is not an FTP server, but allows users access to BIM data without needing to download the entire BIM.

What is a BIMStorm?

BIMStorms are scheduled events taking place in the United States and internationally. The 14 BIMStorms in 2008 were organized to demonstrate new design processes. Some of these were virtual and others happened at a conference, like BIMStorm AEC EcoBuild in Washington, D.C., in December. Every BIMStorm is unique and organic; some are 60 minutes in length and others last more than 24 hours.

Teaching new processes requires effort, but our industry needs to be aware there are opportunities. Some BIMStorms have been self-funded; others have been sponsor-supported, like AEC EcoBuild BIMStorm.

BIMStorms can be stand-alone events or work in conjunction with other BIMStorms. They are, for the most part, not real-world projects, but driven by real-world needs, so the data generated by BIMStorms are not owned by any entity. Think of them as a BIM sandbox for the AEC community. Unlike a project, the results of the BIMStorm are available to all who participate.

The 2008 AEC EcoBuild BIMStorms were short 60- to 90-minute “mini-BIMStorms” during a three-day event, which I moderated. Participants interacted with peers sitting right next to them and with others logged in virtually. With a variety of skill levels, everyone contributed. Some used desktop BIM and Excel, while others participated with iPhones.

As I mentioned, it isn’t necessary to use all of the BIMStorm tools listed above. Understanding how to navigate a website like Expedia is all it takes to be a BIMStorm participant. Many BIMStorm participants comment that BIM on the web is easier than using desktop BIM tools. Both are necessary for project completion, but everyone doesn’t need to know both. Being able to easily access the BIM and make decisions from the data is the most important part of a project.

Too often people think generating BIM is for the BIM department. However, BIM is easy. Most BIMStorm participants are not aware that Excel is a powerful BIM tool. BIMStorms show how spreadsheets are power BIM tools.

The 2008 AEC EcoBuild BIMStorm participants included architects, engineers, contractors, and construction managers. During a panel discussion, U.S. Coast Guard representatives commander Jack Dempsey and senior program manager David Hammond discussed Coast Guard projects they completed and supported the merits of web-based BIM.

Other charrettes

At the 2008 American General Contractors conference in Tahoe, Nev., last summer, a BIMStorm was used for a series of constructability reviews. Using a tower from another BIMStorm, MEP, structural, and curtain wall systems were analyzed with an amazing amount of real-time collaboration.

Engineers designed the mechanical system for the two schemes, one for steel and one for concrete using desktop BIM tools. They responded to the two designs rapidly because the data from architectural and structural engineers were available in real-time.

The model server eliminated e-mail communication and changed the traditional document management processes because communication was channeled through the open model server, allowing the team BIM data access and sharing capabilities. This allowed mechanical system concepts to be evaluated in minutes rather than days. BIM via the web not only provides solutions but reduces the need to refer to static documents. Messages can be attached directly to the model through the model server, making the message accessible to all in real-time.

While MEP engineers continued their work, other engineers and contractors looked at the structural systems and rebuilt the steel BIM model, then put it on the model server, which the MEP engineer was able to access. Data suggested that changing the steel columns from one floor to spanning multiple floors could cut costs. The lower floor-to-floor height triggered design options for various curtain wall and MEP systems, which immediately reflected changes to the overall cost.

As the various disciplines continued their input, graphically visualizing design decisions and quickly abandoning them for alternative design options was easy. A dashboard showed owners, contractors, and the design team different scenarios and how feasibility studies, graphical reports, and material changes would impact design and construction costs. This type of collaboration allowed changes in design direction in the very early stages.

The two-day BIMStorm generated data in hours instead of the typical weeks or months. Creating “what if” scenarios quickly allowed the team to study options in minutes and reduce weeks of wasted design time to days. Rapidly collaborating at these early stages in a dynamic manner was evidence that open standards provide huge benefits.

BIMStorm is a process change. These new methods will require a cultural and technological shift for our industry. Simple but powerful tools will add value to an engineer’s offerings. It’s time to accept these changes. With more BIMs being generated, organizations will have an inventory of models. The challenges will be in retrieving the data. BIM residing on a model server allows the entire design team BIM access.

Author Information
Onuma is president and founder of

BIMStorm statistics

Statistics from BIMStorms in 2008:

14 BIMStorms

3,000 participants

14 countries

2,458 sites

3,964 buildings

493,914 rooms

485,883,746 sq ft of space

In 2009, BIMStorms will focus on low-carbon collaboration starting with the University of Southern California. Low-carbon collaboration describes the efficient process of project decision-making by using fewer resources in time and the need to physically collaborate. Low-carbon collaboration with input from experts at the appropriate time in the project, will result in more intelligent decisions being made for the project.