A Spoonful of Content Makes BIM Exchange Absurd

The absurdity for me began back about a decade ago — I can’t remember the exact year, but I’ll never forget the sequence of events. A client reached out to have me send a bunch of content from the drawings we had prepared for them over the years to a guy at Autodesk. After what I can only assume based on personal experiences was a full-court-press sales job, the client had decided to migrate their design criteria from AutoCAD to Revit and Autodesk was going to build them a template and a library of content on top of signing them up for rent-a-license annual fees.

In a rational world, this would be no big deal for me as my firm had already been producing this client’s projects using a BIM authoring tool for several years at that time. They would be catching up to me and maybe they actually start using the ever more powerful BIMs my team was producing. In turn, I could help them out with sophisticated content that was already up and running. Side note: since our contract obligated us to provide what some well-meaning, but ultimately poorly informed attorney wrote in as “AutoCad R.12 files” we simply exported our beautiful, smart BIM to dumb DWG files for the client’s records up to this point. The BIM was really just a more efficient design and production tool for us at that time.

But 21st century BIM practitioners do not operate in a rational world; we work in a world of daily absurdity. My offer of BIM content was rebuffed, most likely because Autodesk had mostly walled off any of Revit’s potential model geometry sharing capabilities ever since it acquired the software from its original developers. All they wanted was some DWGs, and to this day it still makes me laugh that my content went from Archicad to AutoCAD to gawd-knows-what to Revit. That. Is. Absurd.

I don’t mean to make this all about Autodesk walling off the rest of the industry either — even though that’s exactly what they do. The real point, the real absurdity, is the basic approach to BIM collaboration happening here.

My area of practice as an architect focuses on working with chain concepts on rollout development, especially with restaurants and retailers developing dozens or even hundreds of locations nationally here in the US every year, so that’s the perspective I’m writing from with this article. In conversations with other BIM practitioners, I’ve found that we chain architects share the same absurdity with those who work on larger one-off projects like campuses, stadiums, and high-rise buildings where the client has an extensive and very specific EIR.

Back to that BIM collaboration approach. Basically, every chain that’s migrated from CAD to BIM in the US takes the same approach, which is, “hey, we’re using Revit (insert specific version number here) to make a shit-ton of content for you, so you have to use Revit (insert same specific version number as client here) and use all of this content as-is — oh, and that’s super easy ’cause Autodesk said so. So get it done faster and cheaper too.”

This. Is. Absurd.

If I approached someone (maybe not you, as if you’re reading this you’re probably thoroughly tainted by the absurdity already) and said they would be spoon-fed a bunch of stuff for their job…

…and this stuff was often cumbersome or counterintuitive to their workflows, (imagine fixing the same errors with each new version of the content, or reformatting the same stuff over and over with each new design made from the content) but they couldn’t do anything about that because this stuff had to stay in the same format and version it came in even if the rest of their company was working in a different format and/or version since the content had no backwards or cross-platform compatibility…

…and receiving this stuff, and working for the client would tether them to really expensive and often flawed software — the only software that can use this restrictive format — and that software stops working if they stop paying in every year — even though other software does all the same stuff and more and better for less money, oh and it has perpetual licenses…

…and despite all that nonsense, everything they create for their client will be useless in a few years because this software will be unable to open the old files, so they’ll have to do the old work all over again in a newer version of the same shitty software if the project ever gets revisited by the client…

…they would probably stop to think and say, “well, how much am I making off this?”

FAIR QUESTION! The answer is certainly no more than you did already and there will be pressure to do it all for less since the client is investing so much effort in spoon-feeding you, even though their content is slowing you down. Also, what is your sanity and freedom to operate as you see fit worth to you?

…they would then agree to do the work anyway! Why? Remember: ThIs iS aBsUrD¡

Getting back to us, the tainted-by-absurdity BIM community now. A/E firms sign up for this — we line right up to participate in the absurdity. We need the work and we don’t want to let down our clients, even if they’re headed down an ill-advised path that will fuck over our G&A budget while giving our staff (especially BIM managers) migraines. There are also people amongst us who think this is a good idea because they don’t know better, so they’ll sign up for the work too. This is what we do as poor sap architects after all, this is our lot in life. Embrace the absurd!

When Did It Become Absurd?

The story of how it became absurd is a brief one. It’s not complicated. Autodesk acquisition-ed itself into the BIM paradigm and used that change to avoid the mistake it made with AutoCAD in not having a locked-down proprietary file format. Then Autodesk seasoned that shit stew with some restrictive versioning and a shift to renting instead of owning the software licenses. We poor sap architects made like Tennille and told our Captain, “do it to me one more time!”

But here’s the real kicker, in our (I’m using this possessive determiner to be nice, keep me otherwise out of this) rush to Revit, most made the same mistake that always happens at paradigm shifts in our profession and in this case, didn’t really change their CAD workflows for the BIM world they were living in now. A few users found their way to little bim and enjoyed new levels of production automation over CAD, but not much more than that. And here in the US there was virtually no Information in BIMs early on (and it’s not much better today).

This brings us back to chain concepts (and clients with large-scale one-off projects). Autodesk sells these corporate entities on flashy BIM doing fancy Information-driven shit, but they only get to little bim (the content I’ve seen made by Autodesk is, well…crap) and settle for getting automatic elevations and basic stuff like that. Keeping those old CAD workflows on top of all this, the corporate entities (our clients) push out templates and libraries to their consultants, but it’s not like it was with DWGs where people could use a variety of versions of AutoCAD or even other CAD tools (looking at you, Microstation and Vectorworks lovers, or any of the multitude of other software that can run with DWGs), you have to use the exact same version of Revit now as your client and absolutely nothing else. Side note: the acrobatics these companies and their consultants go through when the company decides it’s time to use a new version of Revit since it’s not backward compatible are truly something, and bring plenty of unintended consequences with them. Another thing the client doesn’t realize is that unlike DWGs or DXFs, eventually these RVT files will age out, and unless you have and old computer sitting around that can run that old version of Revit, you’ll be sitting on gigabytes of worthless files…unless (per Autodesk support) you also happened to save out an IFC file with that RVT back whenever (warm up that time machine). But no one reads that part. I know because no one involved in the decision making about using Revit at these corporations seems to know much about IFCs at all in the conversations I’ve had with them over the years.

We don’t stop to consider what you actually need for legacy BIMs, which is just the friggin’ BIM itself and not all the CD set content that proprietary formats include (at least not the editable original versions of it); and that these BIMs may not be needed for ten years or longer (ten years is a common lease term for the retail industry and that’s often when old designs get revisited). Who’s to say what we’ll be using to do our work in a decade? I certainly don’t want a bloated legacy file, as all that bloat guarantees a crash on open. Thus far Autodesk hasn’t done jack shit to make sure their customers can use those RVTs that many years later. It’s enough to make an openBIM advocate roll their eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of their head.

What Keeps Us Embracing the Absurd?

Fear, for one thing. We’ve been in the walled garden long enough to be worried that if we step outside we may not be able to get back in again. But on a more technical level, there’s the divergent objectives of openBIM that create confusion and frustration for people new to it that are just trying to be free to author BIMs using the tools and workflows and content that they control. This part is where some of the openBIM folks will get irritated with me, and that’s okay. We’re not letting perfect, standards-driven, Information-loaded deliverables get in the way at this point (though I do earnestly want us all to get there someday). Let’s just get ourselves decoupled from proprietary files and dumb CAD workflows for now.

If you dive into IFC, you’ll quickly get that it’s all about the ‘I’ in BIM — the Information. But in the beginning when you’re starting out with it, you really just want to be able to share model geometry with another party because that’s all anyone’s been doing to this point in time with all their RVTs and RTEs and RFAs and whatever else. This graphical side of the conversation is largely ignored in conversations about openBIM because those convos are conducted by the more advanced BIM practitioners who are simply focusing on their interests. Yes, these early exchanges will be messy and could be better with some Information coordination, but we’ll get there, just hang on. While we all need to be doing Information-driven BIM, we have to start by just making sure we can share the damn model geometry, even if it’s not perfect (it wasn’t perfect in the RVT either, so there’s that too). That’s step one for this particular project type and it’s the impure, ugly truth.

I’ve had the…uh…joy of being on both sides of the model geometry exchange: as the client’s architecture consultant and as the corporate entity, AKA the client. I’ve written extensively about the proper way to set up design criteria, which is not handing over a proprietary template and library based on your personal way of doing BIM, so I won’t go into that too much here. My client-side methodology is driven by the organizational structure I wrote about as well as rigorously documenting the Information in ways that allow for easy exchange and importation into the consultant’s BIM. The process I’ve described is definitely critical to open workflows, but it’s equally beneficial to any kind of chain rollout development efforts as it just works better for conveying design intent, and that leads to better outcomes.

This is an example of one of the client-side workflows I’ve used with great success

On the consultant side of things, I find that you need to keep things short and sweet with the client, as you’re lucky just to get a moment to talk about a different way of doing things. What I’ll do is discuss the IFC format and IFC viewers, then we’ll exchange some small, simple test IFC geometry that we can each look at the test geometry in the viewers and our BIM authoring tools. Now we understand how the geometry translates across platforms and make adjustments as needed. There’s often frustration for the client when they don’t see something exactly like the RVTs they’ve been looking at for years. I equate these feelings to the frustration one feels when initially learning a BIM authoring tool at that moment when they feel like it’s all too much work, too many settings to fiddle with, and it was just easier with CAD (but substitute RVT files for CAD in this case). I’ll explain to the client that it’s just different and that the BIM tools have settings to better control/automate imports and exports to make the software do the work for them. Like when initially learning BIM, just keep at out and you’ll grow to appreciate it for what it is: a better way of working because it lets all of us work the way we choose that’s best for us. There’s another conversation to be had with the client about the forward compatibility and reliability of the IFC format over time, and this convo goes pretty smooth as people don’t want to lose that work due to the passage of time.

I’ve found you need to give the teams doing IFC model geometry exchange time to get comfortable before you get into the Information part of those IFC-based BIMs, and some of those Information conversations will just start happening naturally when they realize the Information drives the model. After exchanging IFCs for a while, people start to make requests of each other with regard to model elements and maybe even some properties of the elements. From there, people see possibilities in working together to customize the BIM via IFCs neutral exchange and then you can start talking about including (or more accurately, cleaning up the mess of) Information embedded in that model geometry. People are shocked to find out that all the Information they’ve ever wanted from their BIM has already been asked for a zillion times in the past and that someone invented a system for reliably exchanging that Information (why hello, COBie!) and that there’s software to automate the movement of that Information between parties. It’s all baby steps to make sure we don’t lose anyone or anything along the way.

Will We Ever Not Be Absurd?

You can see how it’s easier when the client just does things openly from the start, as that trickles down to the consulting professionals and then everybody’s on board. It takes longer and requires more effort to push uphill with change from the consulting professional side of the content exchange.

The same mindset that resists adopting national CAD and BIM standards kind of applies here. For example, we all know our personal standards are best, so we don’t pause to think about a world in which we never have to spend time configuring and troubleshooting software for our own standards because the national ones are baked right into the default settings. It’s a similar kind of resistance that says it’s easier if I spoon-feed everything to those who work for me and we all do it my way in my software using my content — take all the thinking and choice out of it, you know…

Another obstacle to these efforts is the software and its limitations (mostly this is Autodesk, but not exclusively). A lot of Information exchange is hindered when developers don’t implement reliable import/export methods for standards-based information. I see Autodesk joined ODA, so maybe this will change, but I won’t hold my breath. Right now, Autodesk does a lot to muddy or just outright block the road for imported geometry to become a Family, which is a constant source of frustration and wasted time in my efforts to work openly amongst teams using a variety of BIM platforms. We find workarounds that allow us to support our openBIM efforts, but it’s clunky and inefficient. There’s no question that we need something slightly less shitty from Autodesk here.

Anyway, back to converting RFAs for use outside Revit just to be able to do some architecture. Have an absurd day!