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How to Use BIM Data in VR to Improve Coordination Workflow in Design, Construction, & FM

How does COBie Data in mixed reality improve the workflow amongst architects, engineers, general contractors, and owner-operators? Ken Shigemitsu, Director of IT/BIM Technology at Shalom Baranes & Associates, shares his thoughts.

According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, Construction Operations Building Information Exchange, or COBie, is “an information exchange specification for the life-cycle capture, and delivery of information needed by facility managers. COBie can be viewed in design, construction, and maintenance software, as well as in simple spreadsheets.”

During a project, the information generated by architects and engineers typically includes 3D geometry with embedded intelligent information (BIM) for coordination purposes. The general contractors and owner-operators for construction and facility management purposes, however, use a different set of the information: BIM data transformed from the design models as 2D plans and text files.

The objective of this article is to analyze these two distinctive working environments and find ways to bridge the gap between them. The BIM data contains both visual and intelligent information, but after certain transformation processes, they are downgraded to be rather a conventional set of information due to loss of visual effectiveness.

This can be illustrated as follows: during a design phase, the architects and engineers build a set of comprehensive 3D models for clash detection, energy analyses, and for many other types of analytical / coordination purposes. During the construction phase, however, the data is transformed into less visual ones such as 2D plans or Excel spreadsheets for construction coordination and database use. This is due to the fact that GC and FM managers are less inclined to use BIM applications during the construction phase.

With the incorporation of COBie data as part of BIM uses, more and more GC and owner-operators are realizing the advantage of using this data for construction and facility management, particularly in visualization and data cataloging purposes.


How do we revive the visual effectiveness of the BIM data back into the hands of the GC and owner operators?

Although an IFC file (an intermediate export, a read-only file format generated by a BIM application) is widely regarded as the format of choice, it is a read-only format and cannot be modified for further constructibility. For this reason, a different approach would be taken into consideration because technology such as AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) require the BIM file size to be optimized in a mobile environment. However, with more hardware advancement being developed for MR (Mixed Reality) these limitations may no longer be an issue in the near future.


So how do we get there from here?

Certain technologies are readily available and we need to explore the options carefully to reach the goal. It is important to understand some of its limitations as this will help you minimize time loss. The following guidelines should help you get there.

But first, a few important things to keep in mind.  

We need to ensure that the BIM attributes (i.e. COBie data) are readily accessible during various project phases (design/ construction/ FM) by inserting the necessary data in the 3D objects prior to incorporating AR/VR technology.


Where does COBie data live?

Technically, COBie data lives in the BIM world as text form to provide essential information for general contractors and facility managers. This data also lives in IFC files typically used in model exchange situations such as clash detection or energy analyses. The COBie data is embedded in 3D objects, which contains various types of datasets (additional detailed information about the object). These datasets are often translated for preventative maintenance scheduling or asset management software use via an export process called “IFC to Facility Management handover.”

This translated data, with no visual appearance, is primarily used for construction administration and facility management. Due to its limitation, it is difficult, if not impossible to identify or distinguish it from its host, a 3D object, and vice versa. As an example, it is a daunting and time-consuming task to search, locate and maintain a piece of MEP equipment in a large office building using just the COBie data.  For quantity take-off tasks there are many types of IFC model viewers that can be used to extract the information, but they lack collaboration features.

A sample COBie data below contains about 3,000 pieces of mechanical equipment in one section of a building. This data provides important information for the GC and owner-operators to manage the project during and after construction.


However, as shown above, the COBie data is typically used in databases, the only way to find the 3D object associated with the COBie data is through a GUID (Global Unique identifier), which is 22 characters long.  

See sample objects below through an IFC model viewer.



How do we turn this into a more visual and mobile data?

Let’s explore what’s required to make this happen. As mentioned earlier, we need to ensure that the integrity of the data from its origin (a native BIM application) is intact during the transformation process to COBie data. This typically involves the task of having the designers enter or insert necessary information into the 3D model.  Many manufacturers may already have the information from their BIM catalog library, but check and make sure the data that you need is there.

Next, the file size must be reduced (free of extraneous information) so that it can be downloaded and run on a mobile device. This can be done by way of “publishing” the model. Once this is accomplished, you will have the visual and detailed information about the 3D objects. The text data associated with an equipment and space are concatenated as identity.

Lastly, using available applications on an iPad, the user will have the ability to search, display and overlay the BIM data onto a physical space. This would require loading an application that can read the information from the “published” model.


How does all this come together as a tool?

To begin, the 3D model must be capable of displaying the embed data, which is likely to have come from the manufacturer’s website. Then, it needs to be in a format compatible with an application on a mobile device, preferably this mobile application is developed by the same BIM application maker.

The next step is to perform an IFC export using the “Facility Handover” option to generate the IFC model that contains the concatenated information for facility management; the handover data. This process is essential to ensure that all specific information related to a space and the equipment it contains are populated properly.

You can verify the integrity of the data via an IFC model viewer application at a later time. The last step is to push this data back into the original BIM model (design intent model) and turn it into a record model or a fabrication model.

This last process will ensure that the data are in synchronization between the design intent and record/fabrication models. By publishing the model one more time and loading it into a tablet, you will end up with a visual and intelligent model. See the sample below.




Bring it all together.

Now that the 3D model in a tablet contains the COBie data, we can load it into AR technology and overlay the virtual model into the real world for constructability. As a recap:

  • BIM attributes are readily available for designers and engineers so why not make them accessible for GC and FM folks.

  • Visual effects are helpful for everyone so when COBie data is visible in the 3D world it makes it a better tool for the construction administrators, general contractors and facility managers to coordinate during and after construction.

  • The collaboration effort improves when visual effects and intelligence come together.

  • Mobile devices cut down the communication error and time between a person on site and a person in the office. This technology improves the accessibility of most up-to-date project information.


An additional technique can be applied by enabling location on a tablet to possibly identify the physical location of the equipment relative to GPS coordinates. Another alternative method is to insert a marker in a 2D floor plan and virtually display the 3D model through a lens. As the design progresses, this technology will help us keep up with the ongoing changes.


Watch the 30-second video below to see a sample illustrating the COBie data in mixed reality.


Lastly, in the not-too-distant future, BIM models and COBie data would appear together through Microsoft HoloLens, which will revolutionize the design and construction processes.