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BIM objects - in the asset lifecycle

“Product quality matters - also in the digital world”

If BIM is virtual construction then BIM objects are virtual products and virtual building materials you bring to the construction site. You cannot build anything without materials and products. In this article we will describe what BIM objects are and why they are critical for lifecycle BIM.

We will look at some common usage scenarios and workflows for BIM objects and focus on their role in handover from construction to operations.

Then we will introduce some common BIM object repositories. We will look at the content, structure and functionality of these repositories and see how far along they have come. We look at what formats are supported and how properties and documentation are mapped to common exchange formats in the industry.

Most of the manufacturer specific BIM object libraries are free for the consumer (designer, contractor and owner) the same way that product catalogues and brochures are free to the public. We will briefly see who are building object libraries and how the business models of providing free repositories are.

As expected, we will see that this is an immature industry. Both the use of BIM objects and the BIM libraries themselves have shortcomings. We point out some of the limitations, and mention ways we hope the industry will evolve.

What are BIM objects?

BIM objects are digital equivalents of products or materials. If you come from a CAD world you could say that the BIM objects are the BIM version of CAD symbols/ blocks but with much more data and intelligence involved.
The BIM object usually have 3d geometry that describe their physical appearance. In addition the BIM object have metadata that describes it. That metadata could be what kind of object is it (e.g. a door), how is it classified (e.g. according to omniclass), what is its performance (e.g. acoustic values), what material is it (e.g. wooden frame), what are its expected lifetime (e.g. 10 years) etc etc.

The easiest way to experience BIM objects is taking the IKEA kitchen planner for a spin. The planner have all the items in the IKEA kitchen catalogue as intelligent objects in an online register. Consumers can drag and drop these objects into a virtual environment representing their kitchen. They can switch between 2D floorplan and 3d modelview during the design process, whatever suits their needs. When placing objects they will snap into place or give you warning if some constraints are violated. You can then modify the details of each component to suit your needs and wants (Front finishes, handles, drawers etc). You can also add other components like lighting, furniture etc to get a total view/ model of your kitchen project. During the design process you always have a list of items (bill of materials) with the cost and availability of each line item. If the cost is too high or you want to try out different alternatives you can make edits and compare different alternatives.
When you are done and you order you get a set of work drawings, a list of components and links to assembly instructions. You can save your kitchen model for future modifications.

The Ikea home planner as a BIM tool with BIM objects The Ikea Home Planner as a BIM tool with BIM objects

Before we get further in the discussions - we know that there are different definitions as to what BIM objects are. We know we sometime use the term to describe the object template (the item in the catalogue, the Revit family, the ArchiCAD GDL object) and sometime the component instance (the specific BIM element representing a specific thing “to be” or thing “as is”. Dependent of what discipline you represent and what tools you are using you may not agree on our use of the term BIM object in the article below. Feel free to join add comments below and help us clear things up.

Types of BIM objects

When thinking about BIM objects it is important to understand the difference between “generic” and “specific” objects. Generic objects, or library objects, are used during the initial design and represents the need for some material or equipment with some function and/or certain performance characteristics. You know you need a door to connect the spaces and you specify fire rating, security characteristics, acoustic values etc. However the exact door or supplier have not been selected yet so there are lots of properties that is not defined yet.
Specific objects or manufacturer objects are virtual representations of the door to be installed/ has been installed. This means that the geometry and characteristics of the door can be more specific.

Generic BIM object with property placeholders A generic BIM object with property placeholders to be filled out by the designer

There is also a distinction between what we can call component objects and material objects. A component object represents a piece of equipment, a component, some furniture or similar that have a distinct 3D geometry.
Material objects however represent building materials where the size of the object is not given. This is best explained in an example. E.g. wooden flooring, bathroom tiles, gypsum walls, insulation materials. It does not make sense to provide a floor tile or a roll of insulation as a bim object. You need to provide a sheet layer that can be extended for the surface or volume it will occupy.
There is also a possibility for BIM objects to not have geometry. Either because they are not specific yet or because the level of detail do not require geometry or geometry is not available.

Another way to group or categorize BIM objects in in what format they are in. E.g. you have BIM objects in native BIM tool formats to be imported directly into those BIM tools during the design process. E.g. Revit BIM objects to be used as Revit Families or Archicad BIM objects to be used as Archicad GSL objects.
BIM objects could also be provided in open exchange formats, e.g. IFC directly, either to support a wider set of design tools or to support the handover or asset management scenario directly.
Ideally the same BIM objects should be available in both open formats and in the most common native formats.

BIM objects in design - How are BIM objects used today

As mentioned the BIM model during design is a digital construction site where the asset to be are built and tested for constructability. The virtual building needs virtual building materials and virtual equipment

It is our experience that BIM objects today are mostly used during the design process. Designers will usually use generic objects from their BIM design suite (e.g. a core BIM tool like Revit, with discipline specific extensions like MagiCAD). They will then supply with specific manufacturer objects from an online catalogue when they do not have generic objects available in the core set.

BIM object imported into Revit to use as a family BIM object imported into Revit to use as a family

The assembled model is then used for design coordination (e.g. clash detection, construction document production (2d drawings) information take off for bidding (schedules etc).

Very rarely are generic objects replaced by specific objects when those products are purchased, installed or handed over. Usually the current contracts do not require designers to update their models in this way and contractors do not see that updating the models could be an efficient way of providing as-built and O&M documentation.

How the use of BIM objects need to evolve for lifecycle BIM

The combined properties and geometry of the objects in the BIM model contain the truth and the intelligence of the model at a certain stage in the project. To carry out discipline specific tasks and discipline coordination the correct information needs to be in place and you need to trust the information that is there. We also need to know where in the objects we can find the required information or where in the object we add the specific information.

Objects are also the carriers of history, both about the individual object and for the asset as a whole. Both the history of the design process (requirements, design capacity etc) but also history of issues, discussions, cost etc.

It is important that we do not add specific components to our models before products have been selected. And it is important that the lifecycle perspective is not lost when moving from generic to specific components or when replacing a piece of equipment with a new component.

When and how generic objects become specific may vary. Usually public bids require product neutral definitions of products. This is also a question of ambition level. If the owner has no intention of using the model for operations and Facilities management updating the design model with specific objects may not be cost effective. For other cases updating with product specific objects as soon as possible would make sense as you get benefit during production planning, procurement, handover etc

During operations data and their structure are very important. You need actionable standard data that could be used for queries (who is the supplier, is it under warranty) or to automate tasks (generate maintenance plans and inspection checklists from supplier properties). Yo do not get that if the data is buried in a PDF document.

BIM object standards

There are a number of BIM object standardization efforts available or underway. They usually fall into on out of two categories
BIM updated versions of CAD standards. They are usually most concerned with the naming conventions of objects and properties, open formats etc
Standards for each of the BIM object repositories. They are made to make objects in that repository as consistent as possible and they usually try to align with other standards in the industry where applicable. E.g. using a classification system to group the objects and using ifc and cobie properties for property sets.
This is a natural evolution and makes sense. However we also see some challenges with the current lack of cross industry standardisation, e.g. all the different standards need to come up with their own properties where there is no support in ifc/cobie. Also the BIM objects standard is just another another standard with some overlap and some inconsistencies with other BIM related frameworks and standards.

BIM object libraries - key features

In this section we will list some of the key features of common BIM object repositories.

All object repositories need basic search and filtering capabilities. Common parameters for search and filtering are classification, object category, supplier name etc. There should also be easy to filter out the format you need.
In addition it is really helpful if the repository have more advanced query capabilities so that you narrow down to the products that satisfy your needs and can make an informed decision about what product to select. (e.g only show doors with a specific fire rating)

In addition to basic findability there should be tools and easy workflow support for designers, e.g. plugins to BIM tools or other ways to drag and drop objects into models

Similarly the BIM object repositories need a good onboarding experience for the manufacturers.
Templates, standards and guidelines will ease the work effort and make sure objects are consistent across suppliers. To stand out object repositories can also provide wizards and tools to convert existing documentation into structured data and for converting between formats (supply one BIM object and publish to multiple formats)

Who are the providers of object repositories?

As with all technological advancements we see a combination of evolution of existing systems and an opportunity of new players to emerge. This mean that you see both new startups emerge making business models around hosting BIM objects and also existing providers of online product catalogues and CAD symbol/ blocks repositories providing BIM content as well.

There is also a discussion in the community as who should provide these libraries and who and how the content should be standardized and verified. Should there be a national/ global BIM library standard and similarly an official repository provided or endorsed by the government, the suppliers trade organization etc.

We will not join that discussion here but will instead list some providers to give you an introduction to the state of this part of the industry. If there are errors of important omissions in our brief descriptions, feel free to add comments below

NBS National BIM Library

The NBS National BIM library promotes itself as “...the primary source of high quality BIM objects in the UK”. NBS (the company) is a commercial entity owned by the Royal Institute of British Architects. NBS (the product) is traditionally a system for product specification. NBA is also providing the free BIM toolkit that has been developed as part of the government run “level 2”- BIM initiative. (For an outsider/ foreigner to the UK it is a bit hard to grasp how government endorsed the National BIM library is).

The National BIM library do have its own standard, the NBS BIM object standard. On the properties front it is aligned with COBie and the NBS also have their own set of properties.
The repository is well balanced. In fact there are both generic and manufacturer objects there. There is also native support for common BIM tools and openBIM support for IFC (all generic object have ifc versions, 86% of the revit manufacturer objects have IFC versions).

Specific BIM object with COBie, IFC and NBS properties Specific BIM object with COBie, IFC and NBS properties

The business model seems to be a combination of charging for generating and hosting the content (You can decide to generate the content yourself and have NBS certify it). It is free to use but also a value add to the commercial NBS specifier product

For manufacturers it may be bit confusing if there will be object libraries like this in every country, if this one will go global or what.

BIMobject

BIM object position themselves as “the No 1 place to download real BIM objects”.
They are a publicly traded company listed on the stock exchange in Stockholm, Sweden.
As with the NBS repository the focus is on providing free objects for consumers and providing value added services for manufacturers. There are some differences however. Unlike NBS, BIM object seems to have a global focus from day one and is not connected to any standard or specification tool. BIMobject have an impressive number of manufacturers and products in the catalogue. Where we find them lacking however is in openBIM support - They do have some ifc objects but that is mostly furniture and building materials. Filtering for plumbing and ifc give no hits as an example.

BIMobject is also a bit open about the value they bring to manufacturers. They want to help you put your product in front of specifiers and decision makers as soon as possible and then help you use the downloads of bim objects as marketing and inbound sales tools.

BIMobject is also making tools to make the creation and distribution of objects easier. They even have their own scripting language that runs on top of Rhino to generate geometry that can be exported into different formats

In addition to the standard Revit and ArchiCAD, BIMobject also have plugin for Sketchup and Vectorworks in on its way.

MagiCloud

Magicloud is another vendor claiming to be “Europe's largest BIM library”. There are some differences to BIM object however. Where BIMobject is lacking a bit in the MEP domain then MagiCloud is the complete opposite. Magicloud is owned by Progman, owners of MagiCAD, and most if not all BIM objects are MEP objects that are also available inside MagiCAD. The cloud version of the repository is quite new (released in 2016) and a lot of the objects listed are not yet available for download. It seems that this happens on a manufacturer by manufacturer basis.
The list of MEP suppliers are really impressive and there are real technical equipment here. What is sadly limiting however from a lifecycle perspective is the tight coupling to the Autodesk products. Objects are only available in Revit (and Autocad) formats.

GoBIM

Another new offering with a different legacy is goBIM. goBIMs tagline is “Digitize your product data”. goBIM is owned by coBuilder who have its background in easing the process of supplying the required documentation delivered with products (chemicals, o&m, datasheets etc). Dependent on your definition on what a BIM object is, it may not be relevant to include goBIM as it do not contain geometry. However we find their solution relevant for many of the use cases we have defined for BIM objects in a lifecycle context, so will include it anyways.

The core focus of goBIM is for product manufacturers to make “BIM-ready” versions of their data. By using online forms and wizards manufacturers are able to put their building performance data and other properties into a structured system and then publish them into common bim data. If we have not misunderstood the goBIM objects have no geometry, only structured data. This may make sense in many use cases where you keep your generic object in your as-build model, but link or embed the structured data in/ related to the model. It all depends on your requirements and strategy for bim-enabled FM and what CAFM system you use.

Where the goBIM repository is strong is in the structured query matching requirements with real-life properties. goBIM also has a strong story in providing multiformat and multilingual data via their investment in the bsDD standard.

The use of the goBIM tool will be free both for consumers and manufacturers. The product can be used as a standalone solution or it can be integrated into coBuilers productExchange solution. So the business model seems to be a freemium models where some some users of the product is expected to sign up for the commercial product.

There are no objects available on the goBIM site yet so we were not able to test them.

Summary findings

This is an immature market with the players competing for market position, either to be “the” BIM object repository or to provide value add to their core business. Each of the vendors/ repositories have their strengths and weaknesses and as consumers of these repositories our job is to know what is available and find out how our needs are best met. For many that is by using a mix of the suppliers.
In our limited test we found that the NBS BIM National BIM library was the most “well rounded” repository with support for both generic and specific objects and support for both native tools and openBIM formats. The alignment with the other UK level-2 BIM tools and processes is another a big plus if you are located in the UK. The future will show if the NBS will be able to “export” this effort to make it a global product.
On the globalisation effort vendors like BIM object are more aggressive and have many manufacturers signed up. They also support a lot of design tools and provide tools to ease the generation of objects in all the formats. Where BIMobject needs to evolve (to be the one repository) in our our opinion is in the support of openBIM formats, better support of MEP products and better alignment of properties and property sets to industry standards.
MagiCloud is very strong in their domain - MEP for Revit/Autocad - but then lacking in support for other formats/tools/disciplines.
Finally goBIM is very strong on product data and structured queries, but then have no support for geometry. Also what manufacturers join the service is also left to be seen.

But maybe this diversity is OK. You may not have be everything for everybody. Focused vendors may be able to support niche markets better than the generic vendors. What we do need however is an evolution of the standardization of property names, values, units etc so that the structured data can be utilised regardless of where the object came from.

So what do you think? If you are a designer, contractor, manufacturer or supplier of BIM objects you probably have a different view than ours. If you do, please add a comment below. Also let us know if you want us to do further investigations at dive deeper into this topic.

Afterword : IFC needs to evolve too

Even if we like openBIM/IFC/COBie and think it is the way forward for interoperability in the industry we want to point out its shortcomings in hope that it will evolve and support our use cases for lifecycle BIM even better. When testing BIM objects in these use cases you soon expose some shortcomings and improvement possibilities

IFCs main use case is for exporting a whole (discipline) model from a design tool. You then get a structure of the whole model starting with the site, project and building and the structure continues from there (with optional floors & spaces, systems and product and equipment types). We have MVDs to support filtering the data for different use cases but still the focus is to export a project with a site with one or more buildings. This mean that the BIM objects we have looked at from the public repositories always have a default site, building, project, building storey etc that “host” the object. Also when the equipment have multiple variants inside the “object” it is a bit strange. You may then have an object with a wall containing 10 different windows, or having 3 different chillers mounted to describe the options. This mean that the objects needs to be filtered or washed before insertion into the asset database. We find that BIM and CAD tools are more mature in how they handle families, blocks etc.

We were not able to import ifc-objects into Revit to use as a Revit family. We are not sure how important of a use case this is as the designer would always reach for the native version if available. The question is more whether a new and emerging BIM tool would be able to import ifc files to use as their “object types”(families) and therefore not requiring a everyone supporting a new native format to be able to compete with the big players. We expect that the current version of IFC to be too limited in parametric geometry support to be a viable solution here (IFC 2X3 is the real current version, but the released IFC4 have better support).

When using BIM objects in native (Revit) format and exporting to IFC we were experiencing loss of almost all of the properties. Dependent on where you stand you could say the problem lays with the BIM object structure, with the IFC default export MVD in Revit or with the lack of standardization of property sets and MVDs in IFC. For the Revit stool we showed with a long list of properties we only got one custom property in the IFC file (we have double checked with Solibri and it is the same result)
Properties are lost in standard IFC export from Revit Properties are lost in standard IFC export from Revit