Structural Engineers Roundtable


    By Jennifer Goupil, P.E.

    Building Information Modeling: Tools and Impacts

    Building information modeling (BIM) – the creation of smart,” object-based models to be used by and shared with all team members during a building’s design, construction, and operation – has matured to the point of becoming a hot topic within the architectural- engineering-construction (AEC) community. Professionals from all aspects of the industry – including design engineers, academia, and software manufacturers – are touting all of the things that it can do, could do, or will do for the AEC industry. To spotlight the dialogue, our publisher, ZweigWhite, sponsored a roundtable discussion at the 2005 AEC Technology Strategies conference held in San Francisco on June 8 of this year. I hosted the event, which included eight participants from various firms and business that are affected directly by the increasing focus on BIM (see page 17 for their biographies).

    Responding to my initial question, How are advances in technology and building information modeling affecting the AEC industry as a whole and structural engineering firms specifically?” topics discussed included the advances in the technology itself and current challenges, such as data exchange and interoperability; internal firm concerns, including training and productivity; and general industry-wide issues, such as risk management and shifting paradigms.


    AH: Development in numerical technology was done when the space program was in full swing.A lot of these equations were done on a mainframe where you paid for computer time. The capacity of the program, the hardware, and the speed of the machines was limited.So programmers had to basically take the real model and create what is called the mathematical model that just contained the size of the problem that you were solving.

    Things have changed a lot.

    Now, you build a structural model the way the structure is going to be built, with structural elements. And that becomes your primary model. That has nothing to do with the mathematics.

    Then in between the actual physical model and the mathematical model you have a translator that takes the physical model, creates a mathematical model, does all the analysis, gets all the results out, and then rebuilds the physical model from the mathematical model. That way you maintain the whole integrity of the real building that’s going to be built.

    And when you set it up that way, you’re able to have an engineer learn how to create that model. And that learning curve is pretty fast. In fact, you all of a sudden may say, Engineering is fun again.” You’ve taken all this drudgery away from it.

    HR: With this technology, information can sit on top of each other and happen at the same time. For example, the physical beam represents one design aspect: to see if a duct gets under it. But it also represents four other aspects: where the joists are coming into it, the drawing, the estimate, and the schedule.

    So you can look at it from a cost basis or an analysis basis or an architectural enclosure basis and make a change from any one of those perspectives at any time.

    MM: The optimization allows you to do just that. And the engineer who is sitting there looking at it can make the decisions and make the changes on the fly. It’s really the ability to optimize the entire system as you’re working on it, from the very beginning.

    Data exchange and interoperability The group discussed the practicality of developing a single standard, such as Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) developed by the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI), across all disciplines and debated the pros and cons. Jacobi suggested that perhaps businesses such as SAP or Oracle may step in to create enterprise resource planning systems for the AEC industry, following the models for data exchange set up by business. Essentially, the experts agreed that while one standard would be convenient, it is impractical. In order to harness all of the expertise that has been developed thus far in each discipline’s silo” of knowledge, we – as a practicing body of building design professionals – need to focus on perfecting exchanging information on levels that are useful to our design partners.

    Training and productivity

    JG: Internal workflow and staff training are two topics that seem to come up quite frequently. Is it the technology that’s going to drive the changes within an office or are we going to change the way we practice and implement the tools that technology can offer?

    MG: We’re in the process of doing more building information modeling in our architectural practice. And, as a result, we have to change the kind of staff that we have. This is a bit idealized, but we used to have people that drafted and didn’t really know that much about what they were doing. And we had people who knew a lot about architecture, but didn’t really know how to use computers very well. And then there were a few people who actually could do both of those things. And what’s happening is that the people who can do both are really good at using the various products. The people that know about architecture and didn’t know how to use the CAD system are probably going to learn how at least to be capable in it.

    And the ones who just draft and don’t know what they’re drawing probably don’t have a job anymore.

    JJ: I agree with Mario. The days of just drawing lines and circles with CAD machines are coming to an end. But, I also believe that the tools need to be put into the hands of the engineers – to create models and drive the production of other deliverables.However, as a practical manner, there is going to be a continuing role for the production of documents based on models, but it is going to take a different type of individual, whether it’s a CAD designer or paraprofessional.

    LK: Is it not possible that the people who are currently doing the drafting will eventually transition to doing the modeling and then they work in collaboration with the designers and the engineers to help them out technically? Maybe the people who are conversant with CAD can be teamed up with designers and engineers.

    HR: Someone earlier today was saying the process of learning how to use the technology tool is a lot easier than the process of learning how to be an architect or be an engineer. I think that’s a pretty safe statement.

    But I think the majority of the fastest adoption seems to be the professionals coming into practice where the tool is already present. You’re nodding a lot.

    JH: Yes, I think these drafters are certainly capable of learning this new information. But I agree that the challenge of this building information knowledge is that of a struggling student.

    I didn’t learn too much about architecture in architecture school. I learned it once I got out into the field. We can produce people who know the tools and some of the fundamentals about designing and building. But there is that conflict about how they get the knowledge about what to model. And they’re only going to pick that up by doing.

    Risk management

    The group discussed BIM in the context of risk management and challenged the notion that BIM creates more risk.What they did conclude was that paper documents are here to stay, at least for another decade or more. They agreed that while the technology has the potential to eliminate using paper, the industry needs to trust each other and the technology, and we are not there yet on either accounts.




    THE PANEL Mario Guttman, AIA, (MG) is CAD director at Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum, Inc., a multi-disciplinary, international design firm based in San Francisco. He is a licensed architect with a background in software development and computeraided facility management.

    Ashraf Habibullah, S.E., (AH) is president and CEO of Computers and Structures, Inc., a software development company based in Berkeley, Calif. He has been developing software for structural engineers for 35 years.

    John Haymaker, Ph.D., (JH) is an assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, in Stanford, Calif., where he conducts research on electronic data integration, multiple models, and similar issues at Stanford’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering.

    James G. Jacobi, P.E., (JJ) is principal and CIO of the Houston-based engineering consulting firm Walter P. Moore & Associates, Inc. He is a structural engineer with experience in software development and technology integration.

    Lachmi Khemlani, Ph.D., (LK) is the founder and editor of AECbytes, which is an online publication for the AEC industry. She is a licensed architect who provides consulting services under the Arcwiz banner and is based in Fremont, Calif.

    Michael P. Matsumoto, P.E., (MM) is a structural engineer and the president and CEO of SSFM International – a project management, planning, engineering company headquartered in Honolulu.

    Huw Roberts (HR) is an architect and is currently the global marketing director for the building group at Bentley Systems, Inc. – a company that develops modeling software headquartered in Exton, Penn.

    Alan Saldich (AS) is vice president of product marketing at Riverbed Technology, Inc. – a San Franciscobased company that makes appliances to speed up wide area networks and the applications that run them.

    HOST Jennifer Goupil, P.E., (JG) is a structural engineer and the editor of Structural Engineer magazine.