How BIM Impacts the Design of Highly Technical Process Buildings

June 13, 2017

What do robots, Revit, and highly technical science laboratories have in common? Each has played a part in my Building Information Modeling (BIM) journey.

I began my career in BIM working one-on-one with futuristic robots in the automotive industry, where I was first introduced to BIM to create intelligent, 3D models that would inform processes and workflow on assembly lines.

My BIM journey then continued as my career progressed back into the field of architecture. Equipped with background as a BIM Specialist and Design Technology Manager, I began working with NXL Architects in early 2016, a Canadian architecture firm that specializes in building highly technical, controlled environments for researchers and talent within the science, technology and manufacturing industries. As Director of Communications and Technology Integration at NXL, I have been charged with a very unique role for a mid-sized architecture firm: working alongside team members to encourage the use of and provide training on the latest and most innovative technology, including BIM software.

While collaborating with clients, engineers, contractors and even other architecture firms, our goal at NXL is to create highly specific process buildings that are efficient, safe, and support the flow of materials and people throughout the building. NXL is considered an early adopter of Revit, integrating BIM into the highly technical and detailed lab and manufacturing projects we specialize in.

Today, BIM is an integral part of NXL’s integrated design process. Building safe, efficient and advanced laboratory facilities require precision and attention to every detail. In highly controlled labs or manufacturing spaces, alterations in the placement of airflow, utility structures, or workstations could significantly change the environment, which could result in loss of critical containment or pressurizations. In addition, engineering consultants provide an especially critical role in the earliest stages of our design process, as their ideas can influence architecture and literally help shape the building. Thanks to BIM and its virtual reality-like capabilities, our team at NXL can work together with all project parties to identify, view and flag details that could become issues from an initial model.

BIM also helps us be more collaborative with our partners. Why? Because BIM helps stakeholders collaborate on models with real-time editing capabilities - regardless of where they are located around the world. Key players in the design process are able to see plans being proposed, and be kept in the loop and up-to-date with changes at all times. This type of project efficiency encourages more informed and up to the minute decision-making, and leads to more value-conscious projects.

At NXL we recently leveraged BIM on a retrofit of York University’s Farquharson Building, a sciences facility that has been standing unchanged for decades. Originally built in the 60’s, the building’s age meant that our team lacked sound interior drawings or measurements. This is a fairly common theme with occupied buildings, specifically with university buildings where different users and programs have occupied the space over the years. These “small” alterations are commonly done without the use of design professionals, so the changes are not documented, or if they are, they are not stored with the original documents and become lost in the plans rooms.

Needless to say, BIM was especially important and useful to us while we worked to develop our design plans for the update to the Farquharson building. The use of Point Cloud Data enabled our entire design team to see exactly what the building looked like in its current state. The Data was also used to build the As-Built models for Architectural, Structural and Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) in a short timeframe, with just four site visits. To put this into perspective, creating As-Built models of this size and scale without the help of the Point Cloud data would have taken our project teams months, many more site visits, and significant additional coordination.

The quality of our design was significantly enhanced by the ability to work with the building’s existing features, which came to light thanks to accurate As-Built models. We were able to maintain cleanliness needed in lab spaces by placing most of the required mechanical systems and piping neatly between the existing building’s structural beams and columns.

Ultimately, I think that BIM greatly supports our philosophy of collaboration, while providing valuable visual insight into ways we can design each project around the unique workflow, people and the equipment that will inhabit it, creating process spaces within which the amazing discoveries of tomorrow can be made.