Using BIM in a pandemic

Engineers were already using BIM, but COVID-19 shifted them to a building software-based digital design hub

By Amanda Culp October 1, 2021
Courtesy: CDM Smith


Learning Objectives

  • Review the effects of the pandemic on building information modeling, technology and building design software.
  • Understand the benefits and challenges of developing cloud-based collaborative building design environments for remote collaboration.
  • Learn to deal with adjusting building design software foundations.


Building information modeling is a building design software that has the ability to act as a design database, moving beyond just a digital representation of the built environment. The shared information contained in a BIM project can be developed, used and recalled from inception, through design and construction processes and during building operation and maintenance.  

BIM has been a part of the engineer and architect’s professional landscape for many years, whether an office uses BIM exclusively or operates under a hybrid system. 

In January 2020, the United States and the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the coronavirus spreading globally, drastic measures were taken to protect lives. However, as initial stay-at-home mandates were issued, little did the world know the isolation mandates were just the beginning.  

What followed was an all-out scramble. Engineering and architectural firms and their employees had to adapt to an entirely work-from-home environment. For some, the required infrastructure for this transition was already in place and readily available, giving employees the ability to remain billable as they settled into their new routines at home.  

However, many engineers and architects were not so lucky. Some firms had to start building what they needed to get their employees working again from the ground up. Corporate COVID-19 committees formed and information technology teams mobilized to begin shipping out computers, monitors and getting employees online. In the meantime, BIM software, which served as the base of project development for many of these firms, was ready for its users to get back to work. 

Figure 1: This shows an overall of 3D model in Autodesk Construction Cloud of the New Jersey-based Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 1: This shows an overall of 3D model in Autodesk Construction Cloud of the New Jersey-based Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project. Courtesy: CDM Smith

How COVID affected BIM

Technological challenges plagued all those new to the work-from-home environment during the transition of early 2020, putting company IT departments on high alert and overloading them with assistance requests. As firms set up for a remote environment, establishing and maintaining their virtual private network became critical. With more employees accessing their firm’s VPN from home, with varying speeds of home internet, the strain on VPNs was immediately evident.  

When using building design software, accessing files through servers and cloud-based environments while competing with streaming platforms and online schooling, the data highway quickly became congested, progress and productivity slowed. Furthermore, receiving help with technical issues from IT departments and troubleshooting was taking longer. Clearer communication and additional steps were required to resolve issues.  

To counteract these delays in productivity, planning project timelines appropriately became critical. Unforeseen data slowdowns were likely when planning for new projects with employees working remotely and, consequentially, firms had to build in more time to accommodate these possible delays. 

With an engineering firm’s workforce physically separated and limited collaboration available in the work-from-home environment, there is the potential for consistency and historical knowledge to be lost between projects. This can be minimized by developing and enforcing project prototypes and standards, which become principal tools in the BIM environment to maintain firmwide consistency and increased efficiency. Once initial templates are established, the creation and development of every following project benefits. Project standards assist in maintaining uniformity especially when sharing work between employees, which became prevalent to allow more flexibility to employees during the pandemic to deal with the new demands of quarantine home life.  

Establishing growth and development initiatives in a firm, regardless of work-from-home, is commonplace. With the continued presence of building design software and the current shift in the BIM software industry, building design software and BIM initiatives are at the top of many firms’ to-do lists. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these BIM initiatives were greatly affected, some benefiting from an acceleration and others being hindered.  

Training employees is a constant goal for many firms. However, training initiatives suffered as employees began to work remotely. Firms have needed to adapt BIM training initiative to accommodate new conditions caused by schedules packed with team conference calls and the lack of safe in-person training options.  

Mark Decker, senior manager of BIM at CDM Smith, shared the shift in BIM training methods CDM Smith is addressing due to the pandemic: “We have to rethink how we do training … we have to think about how training is more YouTube-style, where it’s small videos, quick bits and bytes that can be shared.” 

It has been more than a year since the initial global shut down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have reopened and some engineers and architects are going back into the office. However, the world will never be the same. With more embracing a hybrid or continued remote-work environment, a definitive shift has occurred in the potential reliance on cloud-based building design ecosystems and those changes appear to be here to stay. 

Figure 2: Autodesk Construction Cloud was used to identify modeling issues in the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 2: Autodesk Construction Cloud was used to identify modeling issues in the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Cloud-based collaboration

Data management has conventionally been with on-premises environments, where firms position and manage their resources in-house using their own IT infrastructure. In terms of accessing and collaborating with building design software, the viability of VPNs and server-based data storage came into question when workforces were scattered by the pandemic. The transition to a work-from-home design team demanded a reexamination in how engineering and architectural firms collaborate. For many, embracing the developing industry of cloud-based collaborative building design environments offered the most benefits.  

Decker expressed that due to the need for remote collaboration and file size issues, for CDM Smith entering the “BIM 360 environment (renamed to Autodesk Construction Cloud) became mission critical.” As a cloud-based building design ecosystem, Autodesk BIM 360 is able to assist with the issues CDM Smith faces that were exacerbated by the work-from-home transition. 

These ecosystems provide a secure collaborative environment where the design team, construction team and client can all access, view and share building design modeling and document development for a project. Traditionally, as the design of a project progresses that information is only available to the design team. The cloud-based collaborative environment democratizes the information within the building design models and creates a single source of truth for all users.  

In the same vein, individual users or teams may use the design information in different ways within their appropriate workflows. Having access to a single source means that time and resources do not need to be diverted to force traditionally provided design information into each department’s specific workflow. Accessibility is key to the structure of these ecosystems. All the appropriate stakeholders can access, view, measure and provide markups in the 3D models and sheets without having to procure, license and download specialty BIM software on their computers.  

However, with accessibility comes the responsibility of defining permissions. All members of the team can view and comment on design development, making it easier to communicate with other design disciplines, clarify intent, track clashes and report issues. A framework of permissions becomes critical to establish who can officially make the design changes, preserving responsible control of engineers and architects of record. 

Figure 3: The interior of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project heat treatment area was developed using a 3D model in Autodesk Construction Cloud. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 3: The interior of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project heat treatment area was developed using a 3D model in Autodesk Construction Cloud. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Using BIM in practice

An example of this type of building design specific ecosystem would be Autodesk’s BIM Collaborate Pro and Construction Cloud (formerly BIM 360). This offers one software dashboard that feeds into many programs, i.e., Revit, Navisworks, Plant3D, Civil 3D. All engineered systems, outside of geotechnical, live in one connected environment. With the “new normal” including remote employees and a reduction in face-to-face meetings with co-workers and clients, it appears that these cloud-based collaborative building design environments and BIM software are able to solve a number of issues firms may be facing to get their engineers and architects designing and collaborating again.  

As a project progresses through the six phases of design — design definition, conceptual design, preliminary design, design development, pre-final design and final design — the ability to impact the cost and functional abilities of the design is reduced.  

In turn, the cost of design changes increases the later it is in the design process. These two factors clearly indicate that the earlier design decisions and collaboration to resolve issues can occur in the development of a design, the better. The traditional design process, especially when 2D graphic representation (sheet production) is the main tool for collaboration, concentrates much of the design effort and collaboration in the later phases of design, making design changes costly and often urgent affairs.  

With a modern design process that properly uses cloud-based collaborative building design environments and BIM software, there is an opportunity to change the curve. Using these tools to begin developing the design and having the collaborative stakeholders involved earlier to resolve issues that traditionally would not be discovered until the sheet production stage can minimize the risks associated with late-phase design changes.  

To reshape the curve would mean using BIM software as it was intended, as a true design tool. Many fall into the trap of using it solely as a means of production, for the recreation of 2D documents. As the design environment changes, pre- versus post-pandemic, perhaps the original six phases of design no longer apply or a firm’s established design process must be adjusted to address the actual tools available and how they are being employed; evolution creates a constantly moving target. 

Autodesk’s Revit, as an established BIM software in many firms, has been assisting engineers and architects modeling their 3D designs for years. The shift to move away from underusing BIM-type programs for 2D production and embracing their full design and collaborative potential can be achieved by taking advantage of program add-ins and plug-ins. Add-ins and plug-ins can unlock brand-new workflows and tools such as in-program structural, lighting or energy calculations. The what-ifs are endless as new content is constantly being created.  

While this is exciting, it also can be overwhelming. By establishing a method of analyzing new add-ins and plug-ins with support and training, a firm can streamline the available choices and reduce the potential for wasting resources on tools that do not meet its goals. Identifying a firm’s BIM software wants and needs is the first step and can dictate what add-ins and plug-ins will be most helpful. 

Some of the building design software challenges presented are standard whether a firm’s workforce is all in the same room or scattered across the city, state, nation or globe. In terms of pandemic-related issues, solutions can be found in the inherent features of building design software and cloud-based collaborative building design environments. Integrating Revit with Autodesk Construction Cloud opens features that may address the trials of a scattered design team working remotely.  

The Revit files in the Construction Cloud act as central models, meaning multiple individuals can be working in the same file. In addition to the opportunity for increased productivity, this feature also allows the individuals working in the models to work on smaller portions of the overall file. This limits the file sizes being opened on personal computers that would typically end up crippling home networks. On the other hand, central models require more stringent model management and enforcement of firmwide standards to ensure consistency and compliance among the various users within a single model. 

Project modeling with BIM

CDM Smith employs global project teams that have all been affected by the pandemic. Accelerated by the global pandemic, CDM Smith has updated company policy and is now employing Autodesk’s Construction Cloud as the standard environment for housing and developing all new projects requiring 3D BIM.  

The Newark, New Jersey-based Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project is an example of a design project that was developed within the cloud-based collaborative building design environment during the pandemic. The project included assessing the existing conditions, evaluating and addressing process control issues, design and support construction of a fifth centrifuge and ancillary systems for additional dewatering resiliency (see Figure 1 for extent of the project modeling scope).  

The project was unique in that the existing buildings and structures requiring improvements were laser scanned and these scans produced a point-cloud model that was used to build a 3D model of the existing conditions. Document management was contained in and organized around a central location under the folders tab, including the existing conditions documentation provided by the client, laser scanned models, templates and 3D BIM models used by all the needed disciplines for the project design.  

Document management is customizable within the Construction Cloud depending on the firm’s needs. In addition to document management tab, the model coordination tab is the organizing location for performing clash detection between models and identifying, tagging and assigning issues within the 3D models to specific users within the Autodesk Construction Cloud platform (see Figure 2). When using Revit to create more complete 3D BIM models and using the Construction Cloud as a collaborative meeting hub, many additional inherent tools are unlocked for the team to take advantage.  

This team is more than just the design team; it is inclusive of project management, quality management and reviewers, construction and even the client if desired. See Figure 3 of the combined 3D model with all disciplines incorporated that the team has the ability to review.  

Figure 4: This examines the growth potential over time when continuing with established building software routines compared to redeveloping an engineering firm’s BIM foundation to set up for exponential growth. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 4: This examines the growth potential over time when continuing with established building software routines compared to redeveloping an engineering firm’s BIM foundation to set up for exponential growth. Courtesy: CDM Smith

When to use design software

A technology trap can occur when those in charge of the technological development of a firm believes that digital or technological tools should be used simply because they exist. This is not necessarily true. Though the tools developed can be helpful for their intended use, not every digital tool will be necessary for a firm or design team. Tools, in the simplest of terms, are historically meant to make life easier for humans.  

This is why, when choosing tools or developing workflows with available technological tools, firms need to be selective and ensure that the ultimate goal of the available tools is to enhance work flows, improve quality and maintain or improve efficiency. Often times the bleeding edge of technology has bugs and glitches that still need to be addressed in future version updates from the software developers.  

To avoid the technology trap, as there was a frantic need for firms to adopt new collaborative tools especially during the pandemic, firms need to ensure they find the right technologies to address their specific challenges and provide training to the staff to maximize the tool’s usefulness within the team.  

Decker expressed how in conjunction with the applied technologies group, the BIM department at CDM Smith, “provides guidance and foresight based on understanding the industry to help make informed decisions that the technology that we [CDM Smith] do focus on and building our internal work flows on has thought behind it.” Decker emphasizes the importance of monitoring the software industry the firm is reviewing (i.e., Bentley ProjectWise versus Autodesk) and how the software company’s features meet the needs to be fulfilled. There are opportunities to work with and push back on software companies to see if, with minor adjustments, their products can improve these tools even more.  

Figure 5: CDM Smith’s document management was handled within the Autodesk Construction Cloud for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 5: CDM Smith’s document management was handled within the Autodesk Construction Cloud for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Thickening Centrifuge Improvements Project. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Adapting to BIM workflows

With any change, there will be some resistance. In a time when society is facing constant change caused by COVID-19, it is only natural that people cling to any sense of normalcy. When it comes to building design software, this resistance comes from the expertise employees feel they have with an existing software. Employees often feel as though they know the existing software so well that they can do what is required faster than if they were required to learn a new software that inherently solves the problem they are facing.  

However, these older workflows and outdated technological tools can create inefficiencies and project rework. Shifting the mindset of employees to understand that, while learning and working in a new software or platform may be slower at first, the inherent tools, once learned, make project development faster, more efficient and create less rework later. These opportunities can be found in the developing world of BIM and cloud-based building design environments.  

Change is easier to embrace when it is clear why the changes are needed and there is a definitive path forward for implementation. It becomes clear that implementing workflows and embracing programs that front load a project’s development in regard to the design phases instead of a traditionally back loaded project can reduce the chances of a project being plagued by late design changes from lack of proper collaboration. Being able to coast into the final design phase of a project with confidence minimizes risk and has the potential for higher team morale, with the design team not being forced into panic mode by putting out fires or sacrificing collaboration to meet client deliverables.  

Another reason to adapt is to help the firm align with future exponential growth. Assessing and addressing a firm’s needs and considering the trajectory of the current BIM industry can be a factor to transition a firm’s growth potential.  

The process of restructuring a firm’s BIM initiatives and implementing training can lead to a period of disappointment, which then triggers a significant disruption, allowing the growth to rise exponentially and surpass what was expected along the linear curve. Establishing a solid building design software foundation during this period of disappointment dictates the extent of the potential disruption.  

The dominant software users on the design team need to be part of the solution rather than being told what the solution is by nonstakeholders. An in-tune coalition in charge of collecting and managing the BIM foundation and adjusting appropriately in the future is critical to reduce inefficiencies and avoid the technology trap.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has been life-changing across the globe. Engineering and architectural firms were not exempt from these changes. The industry has proven that it can function — and possibly thrive — in a remote work environment. Moving forward, a reliance on digital collaboration with remote team members in BIM cloud-based collaborative environments is part of the new reality with hybrid environments and flexible work options for employees. With the ultimate goal to operate in a smarter, more efficient and more collaborative way, nothing compares to proper training and communication.  

Author Bio: Amanda Culp is a licensed architect and BIM coordinator for CDM Smith.