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


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 modelingis a building design softwarethathas the ability to act as a design database,movingbeyondjusta digital representation of the built environment. The sharedinformationcontained in a BIM project can be developed,used and recalled from inception, through design and constructionprocessesand during building operation and maintenance.

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BIMhas been a part of the engineerandarchitect’s professional landscape for many years, whetheranoffice uses BIM exclusively or operates under a hybrid system.

In January2020, the United Statesandthe world shut downdue to the COVID-19 pandemic.With the coronavirus spreading globally,drastic measures were taken to protect lives. However, asinitial stay-at-homemandates were issued, little did the world knowthe isolationmandates werejust the beginning.

What followed was an all-out scramble.Engineering and architectural firmsandtheiremployees had to adapt to an entirely work-from-home environment. For some,therequiredinfrastructurefor this transitionwas already in placeand readily available,givingemployeesthe ability toremainbillable as they settled into their new routines at home.

However, many engineers and architects were not so lucky. Somefirms had tostartbuildingwhat they needed toget their employees working againfrom the ground up.CorporateCOVID-19 committeesformedandinformation technologyteams mobilizedto beginshipping out computers, monitors and getting employees online. In the meantime,BIMsoftware,which served asthe base of project development formany ofthese firms,wasreadyforits usersto 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

How COVID affected BIM

Technological challenges plagued all those new to the work-from-home environment during the transition of early 2020, putting companyITdepartments on high alert and overloading themwithassistance requests. As firms set up for aremoteenvironment, establishing and maintaining theirvirtual private networkbecame critical. With more employees accessing their firm’s VPN from home, with varying speeds of home internet, the strain on VPNs wasimmediatelyevident.

When using buildingdesignsoftware,accessing files through servers andcloud-based environmentswhile competing with streaming platforms and online schooling,the data highwayquicklybecame congested,progress and productivity slowed.Furthermore, receiving help with technical issuesfromITdepartmentsand troubleshootingwastaking longer.Clearer communication and additional stepswererequiredtoresolveissues.

Tocounteract these delaysin productivity, planning project timelinesappropriatelybecamecritical.Unforeseen data slowdownswerelikelywhen planning fornew projectswith employees working remotelyand,consequentially,firmshad tobuild in more timeto accommodate these possible delays.

With an engineeringfirm’s workforce physically separated andlimitedcollaborationavailablein the work-from-home environment, there is the potential for consistencyand historical knowledgeto be lostbetween projects. This can be minimized by developing andenforcingproject prototypes andstandards, whichbecome principal tools in the BIM environmenttomaintain firmwideconsistency and increased efficiency. Once initial templates are established, the creation and development of everyfollowingproject benefits.Project standards assist in maintaininguniformityespeciallywhen sharing work betweenemployees, whichbecameprevalenttoallow more flexibilityto employeesduring 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 shiftin the BIM software industry, building design software and BIM initiatives areat the top ofmanyfirms’to-dolists. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these BIMinitiatives were greatly affected,somebenefitingfrom an accelerationand othersbeinghindered.

Training employees is a constant goal formanyfirms. 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-persontraining options.

Mark Decker,seniormanagerofBIMat CDM Smith,sharedtheshift in BIMtraining methodsCDM Smith is addressingdue 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 andbytesthat can be shared.”

It has beenmore thana year since the initial global shut down causedby the COVID-19 pandemic.Businesseshave reopenedandsomeengineers and architects are going backinto the office.However, the worldwillnever be the same.With moreembracinga hybrid orcontinued remote-work environment,a definitive shifthas occurredin the potential reliance on cloud-based building design ecosystemsandthosechangesappear to behere 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

Cloud-based collaboration

Data managementhas conventionally beenwithon-premises environments, where firms position and manage their resources in-houseusingtheir ownITinfrastructure.In terms of accessing and collaborating with building designsoftware, theviabilityof VPNsandserver-baseddata storage came into questionwhen workforces were scattered by the pandemic.The transition to a work-from-home design team demanded areexaminationin how engineering and architectural firms collaborate.For many, embracing the developing industry of cloud-based collaborative building design environmentsoffered the most benefits.

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

Theseecosystems provide a secure collaborative environment where the design team, construction team and client can all access,viewand share building design modeling and document development for a project.Traditionally, as the design of a project progressesthatinformation 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,individualusers orteamsmayusethedesigninformationin different ways within their appropriate workflows. Having access toasingle sourcemeans thattime 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.

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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 ofengineersandarchitectsofrecord.


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 softwaredashboardthat feeds into manyprograms, i.e., Revit, Navisworks, Plant3D, Civil 3D. Allengineeredsystems, outsideofgeotechnical,live in oneconnected environment.With the“new normal”including remote employees and a reduction in face-to-face meetings withco-workersand clients, it appearsthat these cloud-based collaborative building design environments and BIM softwareareable 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—designdefinition,conceptualdesign,preliminarydesign,designdevelopment,pre-finaldesignandfinaldesign—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 factorsclearly indicatethat 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 properlyuses 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 issuesthattraditionally would not be discovered until the sheet production stage can minimize the risks associated with late-phase design changes.

To reshape the curve wouldmeanusing BIM softwareas it was intended,as atruedesign tool.Manyfallinto the trap of using itsolelyas a means of production,for the recreation of 2D documents. As the design environment changes, pre-versuspost-pandemic,perhapsthe original six phases of designno longerapplyora firm’s establisheddesign processmust be adjusted to address the actual tools available and how they are being employed;evolutioncreatesaconstantly movingtarget.

Autodesk’sRevit,as an established BIM software in many firms,has been assisting engineers and architects modeling their 3D designs for years.The shiftto move away from underusing BIM-type programs for 2D production and embracingtheir full design and collaborative potential can beachieved by taking advantage of program add-ins and plug-ins. Add-ins and plug-ins can unlockbrand-newworkflows and tools such as in-program structural, lighting or energy calculations. The what-ifsare endless as new content is constantly being created.

While this is exciting,it also can be overwhelming.Byestablishing a method of analyzing new add-ins and plug-ins with support and training, a firmcan streamline theavailablechoices and reduce the potential forwasting resources on tools that donot meetitsgoals.Identifying a firm’s BIM software wants and needsis the first step andcan dictate what add-ins and plug-ins will be most helpful.

Some of thebuilding design software challenges presented are standard whether a firm’sworkforceis 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 withAutodesk Construction Cloudopens features thatmayaddressthe trialsofa scattered design team working remotely.

The Revit files inthe Construction Cloudact 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 towork on smaller portions of the overall file. Thislimitsthe file sizesbeing opened on personal computers thatwould typicallyend upcripplinghome networks.On theotherhand,central models require more stringent model management and enforcement of firmwide standardsto ensure consistency and compliance among the various userswithin a single model.

Project modeling with BIM

CDM Smith employs global project teams thathaveallbeenaffected by the pandemic. Accelerated by the global pandemic,CDM Smithhas updatedcompany policyand isnow employing Autodesk’s Construction Cloud as the standard environment for housing and developingallnew projects requiring 3DBIM.

TheNewark, New Jersey-basedPassaicValleySewerageCommissionThickening Centrifuge Improvements Project is an example of a design project that was developed within the cloud-based collaborative building design environmentduring the pandemic.The project includedassessing the existing conditions, evaluatingand addressingprocess control issues, design and support construction of a fifth centrifuge and ancillary systems for additional dewateringresiliency(seeFigure 1forextent of theprojectmodelingscope).

The project was unique in that the existing buildingsand structuresrequiring improvements werelaser scannedandthesescansproduceda point-cloud model thatwasused to build a 3Dmodel of the existing conditions.Document management was contained inandorganizedaround acentral locationunder thefolders tab, includingtheexisting conditionsdocumentationprovided by the client,laser scanned models,templatesand3D BIM modelsusedby all the needed disciplinesfor 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).Whenusing Revit to create more complete3DBIM modelsand using the Construction Cloud as a collaborative meeting hub,many additionalinherent tools are unlocked for the team to take advantage.

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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.SeeFigure 3of the combined 3D model with all disciplines incorporatedthat the team has the ability to review.

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