Rob Glisson, AIA, NCARB, principal of Tampa, Fla.-based rojo Architecture, who also participated in BIMStorm, spent about $1,300 on a VectorWorks package several years ago for his 13-member firm. Although he uses it for basic checks such as mechanical conflicts and interior lighting studies, he says manufacturers, consultants, and contractors have a lot of catching up to do before BIM becomes an industry standard.

“BIMStorm was a mountain to create,” he says. “You can see it, touch it, make it happen, but it's a lot of extra work, and there's not as much material to incorporate as you'd think listening to the marketing machine that goes on behind it. The sooner manufacturers provide 3-D models and attach information to them, the sooner we'll be able to do the modeling.

“Our position has always been that we don't want to be on the cutting edge of technology, because it's so expensive,” he continues. “When the market decides which way it will go, we'll follow closely.” That sentiment seems to be shared by the roughly 200 respondents to a recent “AIA Work-on-the-Boards Survey.” Only 19 percent of firms with a residential specialty reported using BIM on billable projects, and 44 percent had no plans to acquire the software. Still, nearly half expect BIM to become an industry standard in the next three years.

a matter of education

Smith, who helped write the first national CAD standard, now in its fourth edition, was recently involved in publishing the first national BIM standard for software makers and building material manufacturers that will allow everyone to communicate in a common language and data model. NIBS completed phase one last December, and by June it expects to publish a Specifier Product Set outlining the basic pieces of information and terminology needed to compare building products. The organization is also working to ensure that the files are Industry Foundation Class (IFC)-based for seamless exchange among manufacturers, consultants, and construction and facilities managers.

“BIMStorm proved that much of the work could be done through IFC data models,” Smith says. “It's not the technology or just vendor training that's holding us back at this point, it's education. Everyone is teaching BIM, but there's no coordination. I'm working with colleges now trying to put together compendiums that teach the concepts behind it, why they're doing it, and what the overall potential is.”

For residential firms testing the waters, the struggle—reminiscent of CAD—is getting staff up to speed. Often the choice is between hiring BIM-ready recent graduates with limited knowledge about how buildings go together and hiring experienced architects who will have to learn the technology. David Hertz Architects–Studio of Environmental Architecture in Santa Monica, Calif., specializes in climate-responsive residential and commercial buildings. According to principal David Hertz, FAIA, LEED AP, all 10 of the firm's employees are trained in building information modeling. “I've tended to look for people who have building experience, and BIM becomes part of their education. While we've been successful, it's a more painful investment” than hiring from the young, tech-savvy set, he says. The fact that most of its consultants work only in the 2-D world doesn't stop the firm from using 3-D as a design tool. Early models are uploaded to Green Building Studio, a Web-based company providing energy and carbon analysis; others might be sent to contractors to help them understand a building condition.

In Kansas City, Mo., BNIM Architects is also embracing BIM. It purchased the software seven years ago and since 2005 has been modeling 85 percent of its projects (including condos and single-family homes)—all but those in which it partners with larger firms who aren't using BIM. Early tracking showed that it took a team fully trained in AutoCAD the same amount of time to produce design and construction drawings as beginners using Revit. “Once a team has Revit under its belt, the return on investment is fairly apparent,” says associate Eddy Krygiel, AIA, LEED AP. Most of the time savings occurs in the documentation phase, when construction drawings and schedules are spun off from a fully resolved model. “It's changed how we do design,” Krygiel explains. “We'll spend more time on schematics, working out spaces and connections. Historically we'd still be redesigning a curtain wall or roof connection in the construction documents phase. We're able to find those issues sooner, when the design is more malleable.”

As impressive as BIM's powers are, it has limits, like any technology. Kevin M. Shertz, AIA, the sole proprietor of a three-year-old firm in Chestertown, Md., says one design challenge is judging when to defer to the software versus doing a time-consuming workaround. That's true not only on details but in choosing products—does he pop in the software's default window brand or manually set up specs for another? “It's like the movie The Matrix,” Shertz says. “You can bend and break some of the rules, but there are still rules. When are you willing to work with the boundaries of the software, and at what point does design integrity require you to find another way?”

That's a question more and more architects will face if, indeed, BIM is here to stay. Smith, for one, is convinced it is. “I've heard people say BIM constricts your creativity, but then I say, look at what Frank Gehry has done with it,” he says. “I'm really confident we're heading in the right direction; things are improving every day.”