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Integration of BIM & GIS is essential

Shannon McElvaneyShannon McElvaney
Global Industry Manager for Community Development and Geodesign evangelist, Esri

Geodesign creates a technology continuum which enables informed designs, says Shannon McElvaney, Global Industry Manager for Community Development and Geodesign evangelist, Esri, as he explains how the concept, which is based on GIS–BIM integration, aims to break down conservative culture barriers to create an integrated workflow that leads to a better design

How does geodesign enable a smooth workflow?
Technology today enables us to move beyond the separate process of planning, designing, construction, and maintenance. That continuum is called geodesign, and from the very early stages of a project, it enables the creation of an iterative and informed design. Geodesign streamlines the design process by defining all the key issues and parametres. With this, one can see whether they are hitting the target or not, if things are going according to the plan or not, etc. BIM is an integral part of geodesign.

In traditional design situations, you make what you think is the perfect plan, and then when construction begins, things start to happen; you start finding things that you didn’t know about — utilities, for example, and you end up saying things like “Whoops! An 11-KV line that was not on any map is underneath the piling that we are just about to dig.” This happened to us in Masdar City, UAE and it was frightening.

We also talk about geodesign from the point of view of change management. If you build change into the process up front using geodesign tools and techniques, you can quickly do an impact assessment of the change order to see if you are hitting your mark and metrics. With big data and sensors, you can have a clear picture of things and are informed constantly.

Do you visualise the construction life cycle as a continuous process, instead of distinct phases with handovers and the associated data impedance problems?
Yes. But one of the things that will block the uptake of this concept is the cultural differences between each one of these disciplines — the cultures of planning, designing, surveying, constructing, down to operating and maintaining the facilities.

The term geodesign is a bit confusing for engineers and architects who are involved in the design and building phases of the life cycle because they think of design with AutoCAD drawings as deliverables. Is Esri more interested in the planning or conceptual planning phases of the life cycle?
It’s the same problem between urban planning and design. The differentiation is understood in different manner by various groups. For instance in Masdar City, we would get the whole layout for the road system, but it was in a 0,0 coordinate system. We would then have to interpret it in the real world context and identify the reasons as to why a certain design wouldn’t work because they didn’t take into consideration the natural layout of the land. Designs delivered in a 0,0 coordinate system are uninformed, and miss out on the wealth of information available from all of the “-ologies” that support better decision making.

There is not a wide embrace of geotechnologies in the architecture community. This year’s American Society of Landscape Architects conference is a great example. It was shocking to see how little uptake of GIS there is in landscape architecture.

The civil engineering community actually uses GIS and this gets down to the continuum I was talking about. They will take all the GIS data available from the counties and cities to analyse whether a conceptual design is viable or not. They will analyse the data and then get approval for the proposed design, and this will get them through to the next planning stage. Typically, GIS will be used throughout 50-60% of design phase, before moving into detailed design.

Without an engineering certification, GIS professionals struggle to be valued in the construction world. The geospatial world is still trying to step up to these mature, well-established, conservative cultures. For example, you will often hear surveyors say “GIS guys don’t understand accuracy, precision, or liabilities.” Geodesign is an attempt to break down these old barriers, by creating an integrated workflow that leads to better design.

Integration of BIM & GIS How do you envision the design process farther down the road?
Do you remember in Star Trek when Captain Kirk says, “Computer, are there carbon-based lifeforms on that planet?” And the computer answers him with relevant information. I envision a world of design like that. We should just be able to say: “We have this many people; we need to build housing in an area that is not susceptible to fire, flood, landslides; it should be located within 15 minutes of where people work; and it should be southfacing to maximise the potential for passive solar.” You would just say what you want to the computer, and get back all of your constraints and opportunities. That information would then go to the designer, who can do the beautiful design for a building that is even more efficient in its own way.

How important is getting design people who are doing BIM as part of the design phase to talk to those who are doing it as part of the planning process?
This is quite important and we are trying really hard to facilitate this. Primarily, we consume BIM models whereby we only extract what we need using things like FME software. At Masdar City, we got these huge BIM models, but we needed only the walls, the piling, the floors, and the roof. And from that we could do solar energy modelling for PV panels, energy performance modelling, transit accessibility, shadow casting, and much more. The developers needed to know proximity to stations, value of real estate, floor space, proximity to amenities, and they used this information to value the real estate and forecast their return on investment. The sustainability group needed to do the same, in order to calculate their GHG emissions, energy, water, and waste needs. BIM and GIS integration is essential to be able to do this.