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fee_tn.pngJames Fee is well known in the ESRI development community, on the GIS blogosphere for his own blog, and as the person behind the blog aggregation site Planet Geospatial. James recently joined an architectural and engineering firm that is focusing a good deal of effort on building information models. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Fee about the growing opportunity of BIM, and the implications that this modeling software will have on the GIS industry.

fee.pngJames Fee is well known in the ESRI development community, on the GIS blogosphere for his own blog, and as the person behind the blog aggregation site Planet Geospatial. James recently joined an architectural and engineering firm that is focusing a good deal of effort on building information models. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Fee about the growing opportunity of BIM, and the implications that this modeling software will have on the GIS industry.


V1: I was really interested to see your change of focus from GIS to BIM. Is that the right assumption?

Fee: I don’t think it’s a forced decision I necessarily made. It’s just the fact that this was probably where the space is moving, and I had this opportunity to join an architecture firm that was interested in getting into GIS. It all kind of came together, and the more that we’ve been focused on figuring out how the systems fit together, the more it seems like this is really where we’re all headed. How do we integrate these 3D models, but give them the intelligence to be able to solve questions that we ask in our everyday jobs?

V1: I’ve often heard to BIM referred to as GIS for buildings. Is that an oversimplified take on it or does that idea align with your thinking?

Fee: GIS has always been a collection of information in different databases, and you are mashing it up either in a map or something on your screen. BIM is kind of the same thing, where you’re bringing in utilities, you’re bringing in interiors, you’re bringing in everything that has to do with a building, and integrating them all into one drawing. As opposed to the classic CAD drawing, where you have a utility layer and it just shows your utilities, and you had your interior, but you had a number of different pages. Now in a BIM, you’re turning layers on and off, and interacting with it. In that way, BIM is very similar to GIS.

V1: Are you able to utilize your GIS experience to work with GIS data in the BIM environment?

Fee: There really isn’t a good way to interact with both GIS and BIM. When you’re inside of a Revit model, which is what they use here, you can import information in, but you’re not really able to utilize the GIS as its native format. You have to do some sort of conversion to get information in. Similarly, you can’t take our Revit model and drop it into our GIS and be able to interact with it. The interoperability between the two is very difficult at this point.

V1: Is your firm working on larger projects, and how are the BIM tools used to expand to a larger space?

Fee: A big thing nowadays are hotels that include a convention center, shopping center, and a condo complex. These complexes are over a bigger area as opposed to just a single parcel. So they have been modeled using the BIM software. A question we struggle with is how to get that information out of BIM, but in ways that decision makers can use.

It’s similar to the classic GIS scenario where you had a GIS person sitting by the ArcInfo workstation and no one, other than that one person, could really use it. In a way, I think BIM is at that level too, but maybe not that extreme. You need skilled people to use it, and the question is how do we get these neighborhoods to interact with each other, and being able to navigate through them, and make decisions based on more than just a parcel or one single project.

V1: Have you been following the work that the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) is doing on AEC convergence?

Fee: Not really, to be honest with you. Before I got to RSP Architects, for me BIM was just one of those buzzwords that you saw in the press. I’m still a novice at this from a user standpoint. I’m trying to figure out, okay this is how I’d like to use any of this information back and forth, and how does it happen. It’s been really educational.

: I’m really encouraged that Autodesk and Bentley both have a vision for a larger digital city model. But I worry a little bit about what happens to GIS if those large models don’t incorporate a GIS hook. Do you think that’s a valid concern?

Fee: You think about people doing mapping with AutoCAD, and a lot of it is just isn’t really smooth. You’re making compromises, and the same is true with the GIS. When you’re getting into really detailed information such as where an outlet is in a room, you just can’t really do that kind of stuff in GIS. If you don’t take advantage of these two different systems, where they’re good and what they’re good at, you’re still going to be left with people asking a question that the software can’t answer.

It’s especially frustrating after people invest a lot of money, if the first thing they ask the software can’t help them answer. They’re going to have a really bad feeling about that. GIS went through that where people spent millions of dollars on GIS, and someone would ask a simple question that couldn’t be answered with the software or the data. CAD went through that as well.

I’m afraid that the BIM people are too heavily promoting putting everything into BIM. They feel that’s just the way we have to go, without asking is this really the way it should be done. Just because you can do something with a piece of software, you don’t have to do it.

I think that’s the same thing when you think of these 3D city models. Just because you can model the city in 3D doesn’t mean you should, unless there’s value to it. And I think ignoring the GIS portion, particularly for what GIS brings for analysis, you’re just left with eye candy essentially.

V1: Are you involved in efforts to collect and model in 3D?

Fee: We do a lot of 3D here, using SketchUp and 3D Studio Max. Anybody that’s ever done 3D realizes there are really two ways to do a 3D model. There’s the pretty model, and then there’s the accurate model. Unfortunately, you make compromises to either one.

You don’t go completely pretty, and you don’t go completely accurate. There’s that whole feeling between the two, deciding where you put your efforts and how much effort you put into a model to get your return on investment. Some of these models you see that people do that get dumped in Google Earth are absolutely beautiful, but from a usability standpoint, things get in the way.

A friend of mine did a shopping center, and he had all these trees everywhere like it really is, and you’re trying to use this model, and you can’t see the building because there are all these palm trees and bushes. In reality, those trees are like that, but that gets in the way of the usability of the building and how you interact with it.

I think people are still trying to feel their way out with the present 3D models. If we think of Google Earth for example as being the final product, something that’s done for visual sake isn’t necessarily something that’s going to be easy to use to make decisions based on that model.

V1: You mentioned the analysis capability of GIS, and one vision that we’ve been pushing at V1 Magazine is a holistic multidisciplinary tool that balances that nexus between the built world and the environment. If we put a building here, and this building is going to do this, what does that do to the environment around it? Is that something that you see a great call for?

Fee: I think so. If you think about classic architecture, you’re concerned with your site and the building’s impact on it. I mean you really don’t see a site plan with just a white space around it now. Before, you didn’t know where this building fit in as far as the community and the ecosystem around it.

Now you’re starting to see site considerations from a design standpoint. If my building is 30, 40 stories tall, how does someone around it interact with it? How do they feel? Is it massive? Does it blend in the background? Is the structure visually appealing?

This is all great from a design standpoint, but there’s more to it. If you’re doing a simple visual analysis to see if the building is going to block someone’s view of a mountain or of the ocean, you might just send a person out with a camera to take pictures. Then you have your visual simulation person that draws the building in how it would be. But when you can bring 3D models into the GIS and run basic overlay and analysis, I think it adds more value to the BIM and to the architecture.

There is acknowledgement of the need to bring GIS into a lot of these projects, especially ones that are block or neighborhood level as opposed to just a single parcel.

V1: How far does 3D visualization within a GIS need to go in order to mesh well with BIM?

Fee: I think it needs to go a lot further. If anybody’s ever used any of the 3D simulation tools in GIS, you have to simplify your models because it slows down the hardware. You’re basically modeling the world, whereas if you’re inside of a tool like Sketchup for example, you’re just modeling the building.

There are performance issues that happen with GIS. When you bring in a complex model, you need to understand what it does to the system, and how you interact with it. If I’ve got a huge skyscraper I’m bringing in, and it’s modeled to great detail, and I’m going to run some analysis on it, I’ll probably almost crash the GIS system because it’s so complex. Where the AutoCAD and Revit software are able to handle those models, with GIS you end up bringing in a square or a rectangle to represent the building because it just can’t draw it.

So, for GIS to bring these models, even if it was easy to interoperate with the BIM, I’m still not sure that you’re going to be able to do any analysis quickly, because you’re going to have to do something to the model to simplify it. Performance is going to be a huge stop sign to using BIM models inside GIS.

V1: I’ve heard some call for 3D analysis without visualization as perhaps a method, but conceptually my mind can’t wrap around that. How would you interact without a representation?

Fee: You really have to know what you’re doing. GIS analysts will often times create complex models with overlay analysis from a command line without really seeing the results because they’re so used to doing these things, such problems as taking two layers, overlaying them, and then buffering them.

I guess you can do that with 3D, but the whole reason for doing 3D is the visual capability to see it. Maybe you could run the analysis without seeing the model, and the output would be a jpeg 2D image or something like that. At that point it’s like you’re taking away the power of the 3D representation and the visualization of 3D, which puts kind of a damper on the excitement of using it.

V1: Safe Software has recently added 3D translation tools that take the extract, transfer and load approach to 3D data translation and transformation. Is that approach something that you see good promise in?

Fee: I think so, because if you’re working with the typical CAD person and if they have to do things to make their model readable by your software, it just takes time out of their day. But if you’ve got a tool that can read what they’re doing, and bring it into the software that you’re doing without having to worry about all the little stuff it improves the speed of the workflow. Any time you don’t have to make a separate file to share is a good thing.

I think the tools that Safe is developing, and ESRI’s Data Interoperability Extension, are probably the way that different tools are going to interact. Dropping a raw Revit file into an ESRI product probably is not the best way to handle it. Translation software to automate the process is probably where the money is because being able to do this quickly, and answer questions quickly, is where the money is. Not having to spend a week converting a model so you can use it in GIS or vice versa is critical. That’s where people ask, “Why are we even bothering to do this?”

We deal with this stuff every day with even a simple CAD file or a simple Shape file. Bringing it either direction, you almost have to hack it up each time, and you can do that if it’s a simple file, but we’re talking about complex 3D models either direction. It’s probably physically impossible for someone to consistently translate these models or let alone do it in time that you can spare. Having software that can automate that process, translating files back and forth, that’s probably where we need to go to get interaction between BIM and GIS.

V1: You’ve made the shift to BIM, and there’s a real opportunity there. How disruptive do you think the advent of BIM is going to be to the traditional GIS space?

Fee: It’s hard to say. When GIS was coming up, the CAD people were feeling that they were doing this. But the reality is that CAD’s still doing what CAD does, and GIS does what GIS does, and I don’t think that’s really going to change with BIM.

You can’t do analysis inside of BIM. You can build models. You can place things exactly where you want very easily using the traditional CAD tools. GIS has all these great spatial analysis tools, and they’ve got decades of experience in developing them.

You just can’t walk away from the expertise that allows you to do overlays and intersections and other spatial analysis. You can’t replicate the logic behind that anytime soon, and I’m not sure anyone is interested in replicating that. The amount of time and effort they’d have to exert to get something that would work is probably not worth it.

I don’t think it’s disruptive in the sense that here I am doing GIS, and here’s this guy sitting next to me creating 3D worlds. I might look and say that’s pretty cool, but as a GIS person I interact with 3D worlds using the software I have. It’s up to GIS software vendors to create tools that allow you to use these models, and not compromise the stability of the software, or require you to have immense pieces of hardware to run these models inside the GIS.

V1: It certainly seems that there will be a need for a lot of new tool sets and a lot of interoperability between BIM, CAD and GIS products as they each mature.

Fee: People are always saying that GIS is outside the building, and CAD is inside the building, and we all know that isn’t necessarily the case. That’s overly simplistic. GIS goes inside of a building, and CAD goes outside of a building. So there is that interaction between the two, and where that happens is going to depend on how far each one goes. At what point do you say this should be done in a GIS 3D model, and at what point do you say this should be done in a BIM 3D model?

Let’s say Google Earth becomes the place we all interact. What software is used to create the model doesn’t really matter. If we’re all collaborating in one virtual world, as long as our tools allow us to get to that virtual world, you use whatever you feel best gets the job done. But we’re nowhere near a virtual marketplace like that yet.

V1: How are you dealing with interoperability issues with your clients?

Fee: Many of our clients are still on GIS, and they still expect to be able to use GIS. One problem we’re seeing is that they’re receiving models in Revit, but they don’t even have Revit. How do I integrate these models into my existing GIS? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

For example, a military installation that builds a new hospital, and the hospital’s delivered to them in Revit. How do they take the Revit model and bring it into their GIS model, and how do they interact with it? How do they query information, bring information in, make sure it interacts, and works within their GIS networks? They have a network built for water supply and water delivery, and you hope that somehow you can hook that network with the internal network of that hospital. If a waterline gets cut, what does that do to the hospital and vice versa?

You’re getting great data, and you hate to dumb it down. If I’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in my utility models, and I’ve got 3D models that are being delivered to me, why can’t I integrate the two? I’m not sure I have any idea how that’s possible right now, but these are important questions moving forward. I think people are starting to ask these questions about how do I leverage the data or the intelligence I have in this GIS model to interact with models of new facilities.

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