Q&A: Erin Rae Hoffer, Autodesk Manager

HofferBuilding information modeling, a technology that allows architects, engineers and contractors to create integrated, three-dimensional digital design documents, is at once a catalyst for tremendous change within the design/construction community and a source of confusion among design professionals and project owners.

Design firms willing to embrace the technology have the potential to create 3-D models of a project, complete with graphical or non-graphical representations of architectural and structural information — down to the weight of the last support beam and the type of bolt used to secure it — and electrical and mechanical systems, including the make and model of individual HVAC units. Owners have the opportunity to see how their projects will look early in the design phase, while contractors may experience fewer construction clashes in the field.

However, as awareness of the technology grows and its capabilities evolve, the definition of BIM becomes more nebulous and far-reaching, and questions begin to arise about potential drawbacks and issues of responsibility. Erin Rae Hoffer, an architect and industry programs manager with Autodesk Inc., a San Rafael, Calif.-based company that specializes in BIM technology, discussed the topic with School Construction News.

Q: There are many definitions of BIM. Some say it’s a process and others say it’s a tool. How would you define it?

A: Autodesk definitely defines it as a process. Initially, it was attached to certain products from certain vendors, but, over time, the industry evolved in its use of building information modeling.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about BIM?

A: The most common misconception is that it’s just another CAD program. It’s a bigger change than that. People also think that it’s just one product that comes in a single software package.

We try to correct that because I think BIM has more opportunity than that. There are several products, from the twinkle-in-the-eye stage to concept and design to planning, analysis and simulation. All of these lead ultimately to construction, then management, then ownership.
Q: How has the need for new skills impacted the rate at which architectural firms adopt BIM?

A: When you’re talking about a move to BIM, it’s not just upgrading your CAD package. In order to leverage it and get the benefit, you have to rethink your whole approach to a project and your whole business model.

There are many practices that have a lot of people who are ready to learn something new. Some firms are bringing in younger people who have been exposed to the latest technology in school programs. Each firm has a different way of refreshing the skill base. There is a lot of access out there to training; It’s more a matter of finding the time.
Q: What role are clients playing in the adoption of BIM?

A: Clients are probably the No. 1 driver of change. A few years ago, I was at an academic institution and the president of the institution came to me and said he had heard a lot of people talking about BIM and wanted to know why. So, I went to survey my colleagues’ market interest, called a bunch of people and asked what was going on with their practices and whether they were looking at BIM. Many of them said, “Well, we have heard that the U.S. General Services Administration is going to require projects to be done using BIM, so we’re going to do it.”

The GSA is the biggest owner in this country. So, the owner’s voice has been heard very clearly and strongly.

Q: What are some other hot topics surrounding BIM right now?

A: One of the hot topics is interoperability. People always ask about that. If you look at BIM as being a multiple-vendor universe of options, how do you navigate it? Just within the Autodesk products, people want to know how to get from authoring their model to doing sustainable analysis to making a movie to show a client.

There is one format, gbXML, which is for green building. It was invented by Autodesk, but now it is managed by a consortium. Autodesk is a participant, but doesn’t control it. We want it to be open as a standard. Our products will write a gbXML file that can then be read by other programs for sustainability analysis. That is something people want to be able to understand how to do.

Q: As an open, continuously updated database, who is ultimately responsible?

A: The American Institute of Architects and the Associated General Contractors of America, which is connected to ConsensusDOCS, have helped out with this question by developing a set of documents that cover integrated projects.

One answer is to look at those groups, because they have BIM documents that lay out a project in detail: If you want to work jointly, here is the way someone should manage the process. However, that’s not the way you have to do it, so other companies have created their own approach.

Some firms are really open. I think it’s something that has to be negotiated on the project, but it can go many different ways.
Q: On the owner’s side, is there an increased risk of unrealistic expectations?

A: I think owners are expecting more because of growing awareness. At a conference I attended this month for commercial developers, several people came up to me and asked about BIM and were wondering if it would be appropriate for different kinds of projects.

People know enough about it now to know that it’s valuable. They aren’t at the point yet where they’re specifying it. I think owner demand will increase, but I don’t know that expectations will ever spiral out of control.
Erin Rae Hoffer is an architect and industry programs manager with Autodesk Inc. She is a LEED-accredited professional with more than 25 years of experience in computer-aided design.