3D, BIM and Going Green: Cities Are Challenged by a New Geospatial Revolution

By Joe Francica

Green is the "new black." BIM evolved from 3D, and geospatial technology finds itself in the midst of so much disruption that revolution is afoot. The beneficiary of all these changes? Perhaps, Mother Earth. From the 2D world with which we "mappers" are most familiar to a third dimension that includes not just terrain but the buildings that occupy it, geospatial technology is trying to keep up with new demands from those seeking better visualization of their environment. For everyone from politicians to the average citizen, the environment, climate change and quality of life are issues of significant importance. In all these arenas GIS is tasked with providing a better spatial perspective as well as the analysis tools to answer questions such as, "How much green space should a city maintain?" or "Will erecting a 15-story building impact the viewshed of the downtown park?"

I spoke with Geoff Zeiss, Autodesk's director of technology, at the GITA Conference and he provided many of the facts and insights for this article. A session Zeiss moderated on critical infrastructure, which included presentations from Doug Eberhardt, formerly of Parsons Brinckerhoff and now of Autodesk, Tim Case, of Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Dan Campbell, of the city of Vancouver, Canada, illustrated many of the exciting innovations in building information models (BIM), and the policy and legal challenges that lie ahead.

Facts, and the Bad News
Let's review a few facts:
  • Global climate change is clearly upon us.
  • We will need to spend $1.6 trillion over the next five years to upgrade aging infrastructure in the U.S.; much of it is at least 40 years old.
  • More than 50% of the world's population lives in cities, creating high population density and thus, more man-made structures. This increase in population density has likely led to additional man-made design errors and the resultant calamities and disasters.
  • With an aging and shrinking workforce moving into an information age economy, we have fewer people to perform construction and utility work. (The average age of a utility worker is close to 50.)
  • We are also facing lagging productivity in key industries including construction and utilities. Productivity in the construction industry is now 20% lower than in 1964.
  • By 2010 as many as 60% of today's experienced utility workers will retire.
The "Pretty Good" News
  • The geospatial software providers have recognized the impending demands and are adding features to their software solutions.
  • Location technology is everywhere and software solutions, from business intelligence to consumer navigation, are now location-enabled.
  • The gaming industry has provided us with some viable 3D visualization and simulation software to leverage in the "real" world.
The Realities
Zeiss stated that cities (municipal governments and utilities) want to become more carbon neutral. New buildings are now designed to be "greener" than in the past. Instead of using traditional 2D CAD to generate paper blueprints, developers can create 3D electronic models of buildings including heating and ventilation, electrical, plumbing, and structural subsystems using building information modeling (BIM). The benefits to developers are immediate. First of all, a developer now has the ability to automatically generate a bill of materials. Second, and even more critical for construction firms trying to stay on budget and on schedule, they now have the ability to find "clashes" between different subsystems, for example a duct occupying the same space as an elevator, during design phase instead of during construction. Third, it is now possible using 3D simulation technology derived from the gaming industry to experience interactively a building during the design phase - before construction begins. Fourth, the developer now has the ability to simulate and measure the greenness of the building and surroundings, all of which involves being able to geolocate the structure. For example, the widely recognized sustainability standard, LEED certification, requires the developer to be concerned with optimizing the amount of internal naturally lighted floor space, optimizing the amount of green space surrounding the building, minimizing impermeable surfaces and eliminating heat islands. The ability to model these relationships facilitates their "greenness." These are the commercial factors that are driving architects, engineers, developers and construction firms to adopt these new technologies, which are transforming the $1.2 trillion construction industry. In addition to the construction industry, these new technologies are also impacting other sectors, especially local government and utilities. The business motivators for these sectors include:
  • urban planning
  • economic development
  • citizen participation
  • 3D zoning and view protection
  • emergency planning
Digital Progress
The result of 40 years of hard work by city and state governments to capture and manage geospatial data has led to "tomorrow's digital city" today. As illustrated during the session by Zeiss and company, this progress has led to a city's ability to analyze energy and land use, and to see infrastructure and as-builts from both above and below ground. Geospatial professionals and other stakeholders can query the man-made and natural environments simultaneously, creating a true convergence of CAD, BIM and GIS.

The Trends
  • There is increased interest in 3D due to the ease-of-use of, and access to, programs like Google's SketchUp.
  • There are better orthophoto updates available for rendering.
  • Last but not least, the unintended consequence of a younger group of workers with vast video gaming experience as kids has been a more 3D-aware young workforce.
The Issues
Policy, legal, practical and technical standards issues stand in the way of these exciting trends. For example, not all buildings have associated digital CAD drawings. Their architectural design drawings may be on paper, microfiche, or lost in some government backroom. Some of the work being done to view simple extruded models of buildings on platforms like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, or more precise digital data capture by LiDAR, can speed up the process of better visualization.

But let's assume that building data do reside in a digital form. Who owns the copyright for these data, especially if they were the product of a CAD design by a private architectural firm that did the work in the first place? Most likely it would be the design firm and possibly the individual. Design plans need to be submitted to the city for review and permitting, but then what happens to those plans? Are they considered part of the public domain? Many cities return the design plans to the architectural firm that did the design.

As public officials consider the design, and review the permit process, they may be faced with questions that they may not have had to address in the past. For example, does this structure stand to become a major tourist attraction? If so, could it also be considered a terrorist target? On balance, officials must weigh whether the building represents a greater good or greater threat to the community? Yes, it's a strange question, but valid when considering the eventual security plans for such an asset. Do, then, the resulting plans and BIMs become part of the public trust because in the event of an emergency, first responders need reliable information about this building? If they are a public trust, should the plans be in the public domain?

Dan Campbell faces these key issues everyday. What do we do with the BIMs? Are they free? Should cities consider cost recovery if someone wants to access these BIMs? There is no clear process established for answering these questions. Sounds like the same old questions about geospatial data. And there are other questions to consider. For viewshed analysis, for example, how much of the viewable area is appropriate to capture for view protection? And in what context do BIMs include information outside the jurisdiction of the city? For example, though Campbell's jurisdiction is Vancouver, the viewshed may encompass Mt. Baker in the United States. Therefore, does everything seen within the context of the viewshed become an aspect of the 3D model?

The Standards
Tim Case raised the issue of common standards for 3D data. Data specifications, like 3D exchange formats such as COLLADA and spatial data management by Oracle Spatial 11g, are perhaps the "de facto" standards. As such, do these issues create a need to rethink how all BIMs are created, shared or managed?

These are not easy questions. It's not the intent of this article to propose solutions, but to raise awareness of the challenges. The challenges are exciting and I look forward to hearing comments from the geospatial community.

Published Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Written by Joe Francica

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