What Should We Do About ‘The Limits of BIM’

It seems like BIM in landscape architecture is finally starting to gain traction as a topic that is worthy of discussion. The Annual Meeting this past November had a session on BIM (BIM in Landscape Architecture: Opportunities and Challenges) and now this month’s issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine has published “The Limits of BIM.”

Here is the synopsis:

Landscape architects are being pulled by architects and clients into the world of building information modeling, or BIM, though the technology is not even close to ready for landscape applications.

If you would like to read the entire article, it is now available online.

As someone who is quite familiar with BIM in landscape architecture, I must admit that there is not much new information in this article. But for LAM’s first article about the topic, it is fairly thorough and effectively covers the limitations of BIM within the profession.

The beginning of the article touches on the state of BIM in landscape architecture (how it is neither common nor easy) and also briefly explains the concept of BIM:

Advanced BIM software can spit out a custom report detailing the embodied energy of a particular facade treatment, the cost to build and maintain it over the life span of the building, and how much solar gain it has with a given orientation. Rotate the building pad 16 degrees east, increase the window openings 12 percent, press enter, and you’ll have a new report with all the updated values for the requested criteria. A few more clicks and you can export a plan, section view, and 3-D model of each scenario. If landscape architects have any strong feelings about BIM, envy may be among them.

Though this might be a bit oversimplified (in terms of workflows), it is still a fairly accurate description. I am usually not impressed when architects try to complain about the issues they have with BIM software, because from where I’m standing, they have it pretty good.

There is also an interesting insight into a previous attempt to get Autodesk to create a landscape-focused BIM software package:

In 2007, Lindhult and Sipes approached Autodesk with a proposal to tailor BIM software to landscape architecture purposes, code-named Project Olmsted. […]

Getting from BIM to what Sipes, Lindhult, and others refer to as SIM (site information modeling) or LIM (landscape information modeling) wouldn’t take much more than a few thoughtfully considered plug-ins, they suggested.

“It just didn’t happen,” Sipes says. “It’s not that it just didn’t happen well, or only parts of it happened. It just didn’t happen.”

Lindhult says that in retrospect he’s not surprised. “We are definitely toward the bottom of the food chain in terms of being the ones that drive decisions and improvements in software. I think they figured it wasn’t really going to grow a new market for them. So they kind of killed that piece.”

Ignoring for a second the reference to ‘SIM’ and ‘LIM’, this is an interesting bit of information. What happened with Project Olmstead essentially confirms what I have long suspected: that Autodesk is not at all interested in providing landscape architects with a BIM platform.

Like Lindhult says, it is not surprising, but it is disappointing.

As an aside here, I would like to mention that I find terms like SIM (site information modeling) and LIM (landscape information modeling) to be confusing, at best, and perhaps even disingenuous. They imply that the term BIM, with the use of ‘building,’ does not apply to landscape architecture.

BIM is an intentionally recognized term. It is a process. And it applies to everything within the AEC industry, from architecture, civil, infrastructure, interiors, and yes, even landscape architecture.

Moving on from Autodesk, the article then proceeds to discuss a few other software options, including Vectorworks Landmark and Land F/X. Even though I am a big Revit user, I think it is always worthwhile to discuss other software options, especially if Autodesk continues to ignore the gap in their BIM workflows.

Vectorworks is a bit stronger in the BIM aspect, though Land F/X (as an AutoCAD plugin) is certainly more popular in the US.

Land F/X is not marketed explicitly as BIM software, but as a landscape-centric BIM-enabling tool. The idea, Farmer says, is to link AutoCAD and SketchUp, “allowing the designer to fluidly move back and forth between 3-D visualization and construction documentation,” which he considers the crucial functionality for landscape architects to participate in multidisciplinary BIM projects.

However, I might have to disagree on this ‘crucial functionality.’ Moving easily between 3-D visualization and construction documents is a great feature, but a big portion of BIM is being about to coordinate with a 3D model and the data attached to the model.

The middle portion of the article focuses on the UK and the current situation surrounding their government BIM mandate. Here, Henry Fenby-Taylor makes an appearance to discuss what the Landscape Institute has been doing and his upcoming book, BIM for Landscape.

And he makes some good points:

Fenby-Taylor says the government mandate has caught landscape architects in the United Kingdom off guard, and threatens to exclude them from arenas they are accustomed to working in—meaning architects and engineers, who already use BIM by default, will likely fill those roles on project teams.

This is not an issue that is unique to the UK, in fact, this is already happening in the US. Granted, there are not many projects (yet) that are requiring BIM for landscape architecture, but with architects and contractors quickly becoming fluent in BIM, it is logical to assume that we will be expected to follow suit.

I realize this is somewhat of a chicken and egg scenario, but there are enough landscape architects already utilizing BIM that we should be trying to develop some standards now so that we don’t end up playing catch-up like they are doing in the UK.

And as Matthew Wilkins points out, ASLA should be involved with this process:

“I think it is appropriate for ASLA to lead that discussion,” says Matthew Wilkins, Associate ASLA, a cochair of the Professional Practice Network for Digital Technology. “Having a unified group speak out as a whole is always better.”

The end of the article delves a bit more into the legal aspects of BIM. And though it gets a bit bogged down talking about contracts, this is certainly an important issue. BIM language is now a standard part of most AIA contracts, and landscape architects would do well to educate themselves on the implications this will have on their own contracts and even liability.

And as Barry LePatner points out, clients are starting to have their own BIM requirements:

If the client wants the project to run on BIM, LePatner says, “usually the RFP says, ‘to all qualified people who want to put in proposals: You will be required to show proficiency in BIM as a condition of doing this project.’” In other words, subcontractors who don’t use BIM need not apply. Not that that should give any comfort to landscape architects.

That last line ‘not that that should give any comfort…’ is a bit silly. Since when is the AEC industry interested in comfort? Markets are driven by incentives. And these requirements are just another incentive for landscape architects to figure out BIM.

So while I agree that:

landscapes are much more than a kit of parts. Soil types, wildlife movements, and patterns of natural vegetation don’t come with a part number, but they remain central forces in the thought process behind any landscape design.

I would also stress that we are not somehow ‘more special’ (even though we might like to think so). BIM is here to stay, and despite the current limitations it does apply to landscape architecture.

Overall, I would say that the article is a well-rounded introduction to the limits of BIM. But as someone already familiar with these issues, I am more interested in asking ‘What should we do about the limits of BIM?’ As a starting point it is always useful to know the problems and issues, but at the end of the day I am more interested in solutions.

Similarly, it would be beneficial to show examples of landscape architecture projects that have been (or are currently being) implemented using BIM. This is something I was able to explore briefly last year when I interviewed several landscape architects who are using BIM at OLIN and HOK (links below).

BIM in Practice: OLIN

BIM in Practice: HOK

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7 thoughts on “What Should We Do About ‘The Limits of BIM’

  1. Good summary. Amazed it took so long for them to start talking about BIM though. It’s going to take pressure from Landscape Architects to force Autodesk to take landscape design seriously.

  2. Thank you for the response! As the contributing editor for this article at LAM, I am glad to see the positive responses being posted. Knowing that LAM hasn’t published much on BIM in the past, the focus on this piece was intended to familiarize the readers with the current issues with BIM in the world of Landscape Architecture.

    “What should we do about the limits of BIM” would be a great follow up article, and I have had a lot of responses suggesting different paths for us to take as LA’s. Please feel free to contact me at deane@slamcoll.com if you would like to add input or potentially be interviewed for a future article… After all, your handle is “landarchBIM”…

  3. A few quick comments here. Let’s not be forgetful about ASLA-led discussions regarding BIM. Jim Sipes’ initial LATIS article was authored in 2008 and updated in 2014. As well, there have been multiple BIM-oriented educational sessions at past ASLA annual meetings; I have attended three of them myself.

    In seven years the message I’m hearing hasn’t changed substantially: BIM (whether it’s Revit or a competing product) is challenging & costly for LA’s to implement, and for most projects the ROI is never attained. If HOK, OLIN & Perkins+Will can’t effectively leverage BIM to produce better projects, the odds of smaller firms being successful are razor slim.

    In terms of future software improvements, I don’t believe the LA market will ever drive that level of innovation. However, civil engineering may have the necessary volume (and dollars) to drive development of a more site-related modeling package. Calling such software ‘SIM’ or ‘LIM’ is not disingenuous, rather it reflects the reality that site construction is a totally different process than assembling a building.

    • Hi Tom, thanks for leaving a comment, though we might have to agree to disagree on a few points. From what I understand, HOK and OLIN have both successfully utilized BIM on some of their projects.

      And though you may believe the message hasn’t changed in the past 7 years, I can safely say that the demand for BIM is growing. It is quickly becoming the standard in the AEC industry. And while the term ‘BIM’ does include the word ‘building,’ it has become synonymous with the process of sharing 3d models and data. Like I said, ‘it applies to everything within the AEC industry, from architecture, civil, infrastructure, interiors, and yes, even landscape architecture.’

      I also believe landscape architects to be fully capable of driving our own innovation in regards to software. Feel free to wait around, but I wouldn’t count on it, especially since civil engineers seem fairly content with their current software.

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