10.02.2016 : Jon Williams

Can BIM help save the planet?

BIM is creating a built environment that uses less power and water, has a reduced carbon footprint and greater occupant satisfaction.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” - Winston Churchill.

Whilst governments see BIM as a part of achieving productivity improvements in the construction sector, there are wider gains to be had by leveraging BIM tools and processes to transform our built environment to be a better place for future generations. In short, using BIM to save the planet!

My last two articles (The 3 worlds of BIM and BIM - one size fits no one) have offered some insight into the difficulties being faced by designers, constructors and owners of assets as they strive to implement BIM. This article highlights the opportunities that BIM is enabling in creating a built environment that uses less power and water, has a reduced carbon footprint and greater occupant satisfaction.

It is accepted that buildings account for around 40% of all energy consumed. What isn’t so commonly known is that approximately 80% of buildings that the current developed world will occupy in 2050 are already built. We mustn’t lose any focus from seeking improvements in the design, construction and operation of new facilities. It is however the improvements that we can make to existing building stock where the real impact will be in changing the environment around us.

In looking at how we leverage the BIM process to address the challenge of improving existing buildings, I’ve identified three key processes to focus on:

  1. Refurbish
  2. Optimise
  3. Repurpose

Whilst these may not read like the normal uses for BIM listed in published BIM guides they are all key aspects of what designers/constructors/operators should be thinking about now.

1. Refurbish (or Scan-Model-Optioneer)

With the improvement in laser scanning, point cloud manipulation and scan to model applications, it is possible to economically create a very accurate and intelligent model of existing facilities. The skill is in selecting what needs to be modelled and what can remain as ‘dumb’ surfaces or solids. The more that is modelled the more complex and costly the process becomes (there is a very good example of modelling just the right amount of detail in the Braken Road Flats case study on the New Zealand Government BIM website.

Once a model of the building and its key systems has been produced, multiple options for refurbishment and modification can be analysed. For each option, key outcomes such as available area, energy usage, thermal performance and seismic resilience can be reported.

Using traditional design analysis tools, two or at most three options can be economically assessed. With the advent of generative design utilising cloud based computing, hundreds or even thousands of options can now be generated and analysed quickly. This means the previous time/cost of modelling and analysis can be redirected to much more valuable process of option definition and review. Once set up, non-technical users can adjust targeted outcomes and see which design delivers the best solutions.

Current research into generative design is mainly focussed on optimisation of product designs but could equally be applied to assessing building modifications.

2. Optimise (or Meter-Monitor-Modify)
In order to manage (and improve) something you need to be able to measure it. The ability to quantitatively and qualitatively monitor all aspects of physical and human systems has greatly increased. Mass sensoring of new buildings is becoming more common. With line powered, Wi-Fi connected IP based sensors, it’s now economical to retrofit sensors into existing facilities. Sensors can track all physical aspects of a building’s operation. Utilising blue tooth tracking, individuals, locations and movements within facilities can be tracked. Social media can be utilised to obtain qualitative feedback from occupants.

Getting information from a single building is a useful start; however more powerful is the ability to deliver this across an entire campus or portfolio of properties. Analysing this data can inform owners, operators and designers how varying facilities are really performing. The impact of any changes made can be assessed and if positive, be applied across the remainder of the portfolio.

On-going fine tuning of existing assets can be both predicted and measured in real time, ensuring both the needs of the users and operators are being met.

3. Repurpose (Standardise-Modularise-Reuse)
The benefits of standardisation have been apparent since before Henry Ford made the Model T car, yet the building industry has been very slow to adopt these mass production techniques. New unitised buildings (hotels, student accommodation) are beginning this implementation with great effect. Why isn’t the same thought process being applied to existing buildings that are being refurnished and repurposed? Retail and entertainment facilities are often significantly upgraded or modified every 5 years. The structure remains but much of the architectural fit-out and services ends up as landfill.

A change of mind-set is needed by both owners and designers. Designers need to demonstrate with models and visualisations how standard components can be relocated to create differing configurations in the future. Owners need to invest more in the initial asset to allow for the design and manufacture of reusable components and sell that configurability to their tenants. There is a downstream cost benefit to tenants by reducing large rebuild costs each time they take up new space. This cost saving could extend lease periods if true flexibility of the space is achieved.

Minimising total cost of ownership is a targeted outcome in many new build project/BIM briefs. This needs to be applied as a key metric to existing buildings and taken beyond energy consumption to include the financial and environmental costs of current and future modifications.

In most countries the current aim for BIM is to raise the performance and productivity of the new build construction industry. For the 80% of 2050’s buildings that are already built, each of the 3 BIM Worlds (Design, Construction and Operation) should be looking at how they can leverage the tools, processes and most importantly the information that BIM is unlocking to improve our use of current building stock. By doing this the built environment of 2050 will be a more efficient, more liveable and more sustainable place than it is today.

About the Author

Jon Williams

Business Director - Practice Development

Jon is our Building Information Modelling (BIM) strategic leader. He established our in-house approach to BIM and is setting industry standards by helping to develop the National BIM Handbook in New Zealand. He is focused on using BIM to drive a positive change in the building industry and is working with clients to help achieve this.

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