Coordinating An Open BIM Workflow

Profiled Firm: Assael Architecture |  Location: London, United Kingdom

For Assael Architecture, what started as a humble beginning with two staff members grew into an award-winning practice comprising several teams, directors, associate directors, and managers. With over 20 years of expertise in the design of mixed-use, residential-led developments in large, urban areas, the practice primarily works in major cities throughout the UK and is expanding its international presence with projects in Europe and the Middle East.

Assael’s multi-faceted teams range in size and scope — they jumped from two founders to 100 staff in their 20 years of existence — and they work on several projects at the same time, many of them at different stages of the design process. “We’ve become a very versatile practice,” said Simon Pitt, one of the directors at Assael. This reputation has led to a variety of interesting partnerships and projects, for which the team relies on Vectorworks.

One of these projects — Pontoon Dock — proved the perfect opportunity for the company to put its Building Information Modeling (BIM) planning and coordination into practice.

Pontoon Dock started as land owned by the Greater London Authority, which through a bidding process selected Linkcity (a UK-based Bouygues Construction company) and Grainger plc to develop a scheme that could help relieve pressure on London’s housing market.

The proposal is a landmark “Build to Rent” development comprising three buildings with heights ranging between five and 14 storeys, with 154 private rented apartments and 82 affordable homes, in response to the city’s housing shortage. 

Using Vectorworks allows us to generate the 2D information a lot quicker than we could before, especially when we consider the repeated updating and refining of the design.

Simon Pitt, Director

What Happens with Structure and Strong Communication

Assael’s major design challenge was balancing the build density on the constrained site, which sits between a viaduct outside Pontoon Dock DLR Station and the Thames Barrier Park. “It was quite a challenge balancing the right amount of density, being so close to the viaduct but also sympathetic to the park, which sits next to the river Thames,” said Pitt.

Pitt said thoroughly going through each perspective of the project in every part of the design process was vital to get that balance right. This was made simpler through the use of BIM and the design-oriented BIM capabilities offered by Vectorworks — from the development of the BIM execution plan, to drawing parametric objects, to smoothly exchanging IFC files. 

The Assael team sets out a project execution plan scaled to match the size of each project. “We work with the clients to make sure they understand the standards of the program we are working to,” explained Pitt. “We allocate resources on a weekly and monthly basis to make sure that the key project tasks of the program are being met, while saving time and unnecessary expenses.” Depending on the scope and size of the project, the resources needed (e.g. staff allocation, BIM tasks) can vary greatly. 

With this in mind, the practice structured its project workflow to follow a workable and proven routine:

  • Assael issued the architectural model near the end of the week (Friday). 
  • The MEP and structural engineers had a few days to download the architectural model and update any changes to their own models, uploading their own IFC files the following week (Tuesday). 
  • Assael downloaded these models, combined the discipline models together, and performed clash detection with Solibri Model Checker. The resulting federated model was issued with PDF reports within 24 hours (Wednesday).
  • The federated combined digital model is reviewed at the fortnightly DTM (design team meeting). All design coordination prior to the DTM would be done via a web-based communication tool called BIMcollab to streamline comments about clashes. With this method, specific comments are only sent to proper parties to more efficiently run meetings in person. 

This process was repeated in two-week cycles until the model was finalised. This systematising of information and model exchange worked well, and the Pontoon Dock project was the first of Assael’s to reach BIM Level 2 collaboration.

“We worked very well with the other two main consultants in Level 2: the mechanical engineers and the structural engineers,” said Ben Lam, BIM manager and associate at Assael. “Although it was difficult at first, it was refined as time went on. We were all learning this process; the other consultants have been using Revit and we've been using Vectorworks. The level of exchanging Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) data was a challenge at times because with any mass exchange of models and information you can run into issues if portions are inaccurate or missing...luckily with the quality of Vectorworks IFC we managed to fine-tune this process as the project developed to be as efficient as possible." This fine-tuning included factoring time for a few trial runs before the actual model exchange took place to ensure everything worked the way it needed to. 

"Once you learn the best approaches for what to export, and establish rules for your model imports and exports, it works out quite well in Vectorworks," Lam said. 

Assael was committed to constant communication, coordination, and negotiation to ensure all parties were presented with a consistent view of the project status. “We all had to sit around the table and look at the execution plan, the timeline, the model, the model exchanges, and the time for federating the model,” said Lam. He added that these meetings were crucial, especially since some collaborators were still working primarily in 2D.

“We definitely spent a lot of time getting the model right and not just concentrating on 2D information, even though the contractors and consultants rely heavily on 2D data,” said Lam. Focusing on 3D modeling was important for Assael to grow the firm in an efficient manner; instead of doing all 2D drawing separately, they aimed to build the 3D model so they could generate 2D drawings while simultaneously having an accurate model for BIM exchange. This process allowed the firm to share both the model and 2D information more easily with collaborators. 

“Getting the model right and spending more time at the beginning has really reaped rewards,” said Pitt. “And using Vectorworks allows us to generate the 2D information a lot quicker than we could before, especially when we consider the repeated updating and refining of the design.”  

The Reasons You Need to Work in 3D

To meet the BIM Level 2 mandate, Assael had its own workflow adjustments to absorb. According to Lam, Vectorworks played a big role in this transition.

“It was quite a natural progression from using Vectorworks to get into BIM because we have always used Vectorworks’ intelligent objects like walls, windows, and doors, but we had never taken advantage of the fact that they were creating 3D BIM objects already,” he said. “I think our team members have come to realise they're creating BIM models without having to dramatically change the way they work. They're starting to see the benefit of actually generating a proper model from which they are generating 2D information and how effective that can be to streamline work and complete projects." To further emphasise this point, Assael's teams, which by design are versatile and fluid in terms of membership, need to have at least one BIM champion present to facilitate the process.

The software also simplified the number of steps taken to reach major milestones in projects. In particular, Renderworks one of many features that’s proved to be a game changer.

“It’s a complete necessity here because we use rendering a lot for our elevations,” said Lam. “Without Renderworks, we just would not get the correct look and feel to our elevations and the associated information. With many of our material renders, for example, the light resources and the shadowing are very important for elevations. So, no matter what changes we do for the model, the renderings for the elevations come up just the way we like them to.”

Moving completely to BIM has also transformed the firm’s design process overall. 

“In four to five years, projects that go from initial capacity study through to planning are now done as BIM models,” said Lam. “Everyone uses the 3D aspect much more than they used to; they have become more proficient in using 3D as part of the BIM process.” To add structure to this transition, Assael has since developed their own BIM templates (based primarily on their direct project experience with the assistance of UK government documents such as BS 1192 and PAS 1192), to educate clients who are interested in BIM but had not necessarily experienced BIM. 

He emphasised the importance of working completely in 3D.

“In the UK, a massive part of the design process for any project is gaining planning permission,” Pitt explained. “A vital part of our work is ensuring that we get the information right to present to planning committees, planning authorities, and the general public. When we moved towards BIM Level 2 using Vectorworks, we also needed to make sure the quality of our work didn't drop or was compromised in any way. The fact that our existing workflow could be adapted quickly really helped in the transition.”

We've developed our skills in 3D to develop BIM, and everyone is more proficient now in the way they use Vectorworks. 

Ben Lam, BIM Manager and Associate 

This is What Building a Compliant Future Looks Like

For Assael Architecture, the switch to BIM Level 2 compliance has been very effective, and the results of the Pontoon Dock project, along with many others, has set the firm up to continue on the path to a productive and promising future.

“We've developed our skills in 3D to develop BIM, and everyone is more proficient now in the way they use Vectorworks,” said Lam. “So, it's been a natural progression between what we were using primarily as a 2D tool, for sections and elevations and plans, to develop that to 3D information that was already there but not being utilised.”

By fully utilising 3D, creating a BIM execution plan, and learning how to successfully conduct an openBIM workflow process with engineers, Assael will continue building future homes — and building its practice — for many years to come.  

Images courtesy of Assael Architecture