BIM is now widely accepted in Australian construction, but to ensure it is as useful as possible for all, we need to create a national object library.

That is how Mark Tait, head of commercial development at Investa described the fact that Australia does not have a national object library for Building Information Modelling (BIM) at the recent Digital 2017 conference hosted by Siemens in Sydney recently.

Currently, he said, Australia has a wasteful situation whereby different design firms are each making their own BIM object libraries.

That, he says, needs to change. Toward this end, Tait has called on the Australian government to lead the development of a national object library for BIM – an initiative he says would enable all parties throughout the building supply chain to feed into a single model and language and thus to help realise the full value of the technology.

“Why does every architect have a digital or a BIM library and they have got all these different elements that they have created themselves and had to be of a certain size?” Tait asked the audience.

“They (the object libraries) sit in a silo whether it is Woods Bagot or whether it is Hassell – they have their own technical library for BIM objects. It’s ridiculous. It needs to be brought together and there needs to be a holder of Australian standards.

“Someone needs to take ownership from a government perspective of letting all of the supply chain feed in to one central database.”

Tait’s comment underscores a critical issue with which the Australian Building Industry is grappling as we move toward a digital built environment.

As many will know, BIM objects define a product and the geometry that represents the product’s physical characteristics in the digital built model using BIM. The United Kingdom has created the NBS National BIM Library which is open for use for all throughout the building industry supply chain. There have been calls (thus far unheeded) for the Australian Government to do likewise.

This raises questions about whether Australia should create a national object library for BIM, who should create it and what challenges face its establishment.

Steve Fox, general manager of BIM Consulting agrees that a national library is needed.

Fox acknowledges that there are several positive initiatives underway within the BIM space. The BIMMEPAUS initiative offers detailed manufacturing content as well of objects for service related contracts. AusHFG has recently released a wealth of 3D data sets for consultants in the healthcare industry.

Throughout much of the industry, however, he says firms are left to their own devices to set up content and a number of players are reliant upon content which is produced for them by manufacturers in an ad hoc fashion.

By contrast, he says a national BIM library would deliver two advantages. First, it would make realising the full benefits associated with BIM more accessible to smaller market players who lack the resources necessary to create their own BIM libraries. This in turn would help to eradicate a current source of disadvantage which small firms throughout the AEC industry face compared with their larger rivals and would thus help to promote a more competitive marketplace.

Moreover, it would help make BIM more accessible to stakeholders throughout the design, construct, operate and maintain stages and would facilitate greater collaboration between project team members. A national BIM object library, Fox said, would encourage players throughout the project chain to step out and leap into the 3D digital area, and would give organisations the impetus to take up 3D project delivery.

“There are several organisations out there who don’t have the maturity in BIM required to get them up to the point where they can confidently approach projects,” he said.

“There are other firms that have a good level of maturity and have invested time and energy in their libraries and have a competitive advantage in that respect.

“I would really welcome the support of a National BIM object library. At a project level, it offers great opportunity for team members to access shared data services in a central location. Ultimately, this would improve collaboration.”

Nevertheless, Fox acknowledges that there are two challenges.

First, there may be resistance from firms that have invested in their own library and who may see their competitive advantage associated with this eroded.

Second, there is the complexity of setting it up.

On this latter point, Fox says it is critical to understand who the important players are, the different ways in which content is used throughout the project and differing ways in which various players use the object library.

On the first point, Fox divides BIM players into the ‘production’ side of BIM related data and the ‘consumption’ side of this data. On the production side are architects, engineers, trade and construction contractors and fabricators and manufacturers, as well as digital engineers who work for the head contractors producing models about logistics and temporary works. On the consumption side, there are cost consultants, project managers, estimators, site operators, building owners and facilities managers.

Added to that, different content is required by different sectors within the AEC industry to suit their own specific purpose and role.

It is also important, Fox said, to think about how the way in which the content is used changes throughout the life-cycle of the project and through to operation.

Because of all this, he said, there must be a variety of object types. In particular, we would need a generic based option for those elements of the design where the decisions about design elements are yet to be made. This might be the case, he said, with a design and construct contract where a builder might be coming in earlier on to the contract and there is flexibility about elements of the design in which decision are yet to be made.

In addition, we would need object types not just for individual products but for building systems involving floor, wall and roof composite build-ups. We would need infrastructure based components. Finally, specific manufacturing content for the business end of the project when a builder knows what his or her product selections would also be useful.

Finally, it is important to think about what you want the library to do and how it might serve different purposes. Architects, for instance, rely on 3D digital objects to deliver graphically rich 2D content, for 3D visualisation for material rich data such as virtual reality and augmented reality and the right amount of specification and classification data to hand over to consultants, contractors and operators.

Nathan Hildebrand, a director of Fulton Trotter Architects, agrees that Australia needs a national BIM object library but says there are challenges which must be resolved.

First, there is a need to involve all relevant stakeholders when deciding what data is needed. When defining data requirements, he said it can be easy for this process to be unduly influenced by one or two particularly powerful stakeholder groups. Where this happens, he says, needs of other users can be neglected.

Then, there are software specific challenges, with different stakeholder groups being largely wedded to different software platforms (ARCHICAD/Revit, for instance) and many others further down the chain not using either of these.

To overcome this, Hildebrandt says the library should be at the level of Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) – an open source data structure designed to facilitate interoperability across various BIM platforms. Essentially, he said, use of the library must be independent of the software being used by individual users.

Users – be they architects, structural engineers, builders, asset owners or maintenance contractors – need to be able to tell the library which system they are using and seamlessly download and upload information from and to the library as need be. An architect using ARCHICAD, for example, would specify this and upload information which would interface seamlessly with the library. A contractor using different software could download from that same back-end in a seamless manner using his software of choice, add any necessary information, and then the asset owner and/or facilities manager could in turn use their own chosen software to download the file for their own purposes.

Essentially, Hildebrandt said, it’s about the ability to have data which is structured in the same format and accessible irrespective of the software package being used.

A further issue, Hildebrandt noted, revolves around questions of who would lead this. On this score, he says a ‘top-down’ approach is needed and the government needs to step up, though he acknowledged this is unlikely to happen as government wants industry to take the lead. A ‘bottom-up’ approach in which people largely in the field simply work together to create an outcome would almost certainly not work whilst a ‘middle-out’ process driven by larger firms in the private sector would be dangerous as this could see a process which primarily benefited larger players at the expense of smaller rivals.

One possibility would be for an organisation such as NATSPEC (owned by 20 different industry and government stakeholders) to take ownership of it. An international standard for information management using BIM (ISO19650) is under development. Hopefully, Hildebrandt says, that will provide impetus for governments to act.

As an example of the leadership that is required, Hildebrandt points to the Queensland government’s move to adopt a BIM strategy earlier this year based largely around Open BIM standards. A draft policy was unveiled in February and Hildebrandt hopes this will be endorsed by cabinet in the near term.

Rafik Abdelkaddous, senior territory manager, ANZ at Autodesk, agrees that a national BIM object library is needed. The current situation of architectural studios creating their own libraries “with various degrees of success, accuracy and quality” has created a setup which is fragmented, repetitive and fails to facilitate collaboration, he said.

As for how a national library would look, Abdelkaddous said the library should be available on a cloud service for all to download, with users able to search for components by either manufacturer or product category. The library should include not just the BIM model components of the object but also the manufactured related properties. Having said that, he acknowledges that the more information you put into a BIM object, the larger its file size and that a balance has to be struck between having sufficient levels of information along with having a workable file size.

He cautions also that there are a number of obstacles. Future contractual liabilities could arise from the use of a component which was incomplete or inaccurate, he said. In addition, it is imperative that the business model be adequately funded and sustainable. Previous initiatives in other countries have gotten off to promising starts only for quality and usage to decline when funding dries up, he said.

Throughout the construction sector, developing and maintaining a digital model of new buildings and infrastructure along with the physical building itself is becoming increasingly accepted as the way in which buildings should be done.

For Australia to get the most out of this, however, many argue that we need a national object library for BIM.