Collaboration on a BIM project. Possible or Impossible?

Everyone that has been involved with BIM technology in one way or another, has heard the same question: Is it really possible to work with BIM in a collaborative environment? As you can guess, the answer is not based on specific software or application, but by defining a process that will work, depending on the degree of involvement of each of the participants and the degree of interoperability of the applications we use. What is the answer? Yes or no? You are right, the answer is YES. So how is implemented? Well, that's what I will try to explain in this article.

Multidisciplinary collaboration

The first step to create the collaborative environment is during the design phase. How can the architect, the structural engineer, the mechanical engineer, and the electrical engineer work in parallel, with unlimited users simultaneously accessing the project, for any kind of project, regardless of how big it is? If we think of a single application, providing all the functionality needed for whichever discipline, supporting the design workflow from the first sketch to the generation of photorealistic images, and be available to be accessed via different profiles, so that the user interface is directly applicable to each different user, then the best option is called AECOsim Building Designer, the BIM design software from Bentley. Its federated modelling approach to BIM allows the project manager to arrange the project data with their own specific workflow, and not be forced to work in the mode or manner that the software imposes.

Section of a multidisciplinary model with AECOsim Building Designer


If we empower the BIM design team with a “Managed Environment" specifically designed for collaborative projects, such as ProjectWise, we will be able to expand the collaboration radius to any point on the planet. For this, the team will not need to have a direct network connection between the individual participants on the project, but just an Internet connection. By using ProjectWise with a relevant workflow supporting the agreed information issue cycle, the project team will always be sure that when the architect is working on his project model(s), is able to see the latest version of the structural model(s) and vice versa, ensuring that no data is outdated. When any project participant changes data that affects others work, ProjectWise will send a notification informing them that more up to date information is available, and at that point they could choose to see the updated version of the model.

Notice of changes in the model, using AECOsim Building Designer and ProjectWise


Collaboration between different BIM design software

What I have described so far, is a logical method if all project participants use software from the same vendor, and we can believe in that way it will always work, but… why should we be forced to choose another tool because it's used by others? Can we not work on a project using separate tools for designing the architecture (e.g. ArchiCAD, Allplan or SketchUp), a different one for structural design (AECOsim Building Designer, Revit or CYPE), and a different one again for electrical and mechanical design (such as AECOsim Building Designer)? Would it be possible to generate drawings from the full model? And a bill of quantities or a cost report could be generated from the whole model? Here, the answer is again YES, and the solution has two names: i-model and Bentley Navigator. Where i-model is a review file format that can be published directly from AECOsim Building Designer and also Revit or via an IFC generated with ArchiCAD, Allplan, CYPE or any other application that supports IFC, and where Bentley Navigator is the tool that will allow us to do the review, print drawings and generate renderings, animations, reports and documentation  from the complete project, using these i-models.

Bentley Navigator showing a multidisciplinary section


Design and Engineering Collaboration

Who ever thought that a structural or fluid calculation program is not part of the BIM process? I hope no one, because if so, the engineers responsible for these aspects will not be happy, and rightly so. Of course they are a part, and there should be a commitment to involve them in the BIM process, because we must not forget that we will never have a good structural or mechanical model if there is not a good calculation program behind it. So how do we do it? What we need is a bidirectional communication channel between design and calculation software, either because they are able to interpret the same file format (as AECOsim Building Designer, STAAD, RAM, ProStructures and Tekla do with the ISM format ) or, if this is not possible, to use an appropriate exchange standard for the discipline in which we are working (like CIS/2 and SDNF for steel structures, for example, not forgetting IFC, which will allow us to share information from any discipline). The ultimate goal of this collaboration is to never have to model or design the same data two times, and if (in example) the structural calculation software has generated already a model with all the analytical information (sections, loads, nodes), we must be able to create the physical model by importing the structural data into BIM design application.

Structural Model imported from a structural calculation program using AECOsim Building Designer


Collaboration between Design, Project Review and Simulation.

We have reached one of the key moments in the BIM process: The multidisciplinary model review. If, after all that we have worked to create the BIM model, either with one or more tools, we are not able to use it to perform a good review and identify potential problems or interferences before coming to construction, we need to rethink whether we are really applying the correct BIM methodology. When I spoke earlier about the collaboration between different software applications, I introduced the i-model concept and Bentley Navigator. This software will allow for visual inspection of the model, which can be designed completely with AECOsim Building Designer or using other BIM applications, but will also allow us to do clash detection between elements from the same or different disciplines, do markup allowing the design responsible to display them in his own application, and even link tasks with elements and/or sets of elements to make a simulation of the construction process. The version of Bentley Navigator for tablets (available on iOS and soon in Android and Windows 8) allows us to perform field review and do markup based on the same i-models.

Bentley Navigator executing Clash Detection for several dsciplines


Collaboration between Design and Operation (Facility Management)

To finish, the goal we should make when we work on a BIM project is that the model that we have devoted so much care and effort was usable also for the entire life cycle of the building, that is, it must be used by a facility management system. If the original design model can be used without changing the format (as AECOsim Building Designer and Bentley Facilities does, working in the DGN format), then it’s perfect, but if it’s not possible, we will open again the discussion about interoperability, exchange standards, and "open" or "closed" software. To close the circle, Bentley has made a new effort with the latest version of AECOsim Building Designer, and on top of all exchange formats already supported, has added interoperability with COBie, who comes to adding an Excel document with all the project information, following COBie format, to the geometry and data stored in the IFC format.


AECOsim Building Designer exporting to COBie


Related links:

AECOsim Building Designer:


i-model Plug-in for Revit:

Bentley Navigator:

Bentley Navigator for iPad:

Bentley Facilities:

Author: Eduardo Cortés (@_EduardoCortes)