Onuma Aims to Revolutionize Architecture with BIM
Kimon Onuma is president and founder of Onuma, creators of the Onuma Planning System (OPS). This software tool is a Building Information Modeling (BIM) environment with web-enabled data sharing and knowledge management for the design, construction and management of infrastructure. The process advocates integrated decision making for better design quality and sustainable environments. Matt Ball sat down with Kimon to discuss the evolution of BIM and the promise that the revolution holds.
This interview originally appeared in V1 Magazine on 4/27/2008.
Ball: How did you get involved in using and building BIM tools?
Onuma: We go way back, having started using ArchiCAD in 1993. But before that we were doing a lot of 3-D modeling and database work. So when we saw BIM come along, we got really excited because we were using databases and 3-D modeling tools separately before that.
When we jumped into ArchiCAD, we really started pushing limits and using it for large-scale urban planning projects. It had its limits, and we were hitting the limits of what it could do in larger scale. We started developing our own techniques and our own libraries to manage the memory, because computers back then weren’t very powerful.
We began to work with the U.S. Government on plans for large military bases, with as many as 2,000 housing units and a big master plan. We placed all that work inside ArchiCAD, but we developed our own tools. We developed our own tree library to calculate trees. We developed our own smart objects that grew housing objects. Luckily they were military projects so the design was somewhat repetitive.
We developed these objects so that as you stretch them they would recalculate, and they even have rules in them about how they should be built. We started describing those rules as the object genome, the genetic code of the built environment that’s made up of these little seeds that have rules that you can use.
Ball: What was the impetus to start working this way, was it a matter of time savings and efficiency?
Onuma: One of the reasons was that we were collaborating between Tokyo and our office in California, and we were sending CAD and 3D files back and forth. We realized that by focusing on the data part of it we could make these files very small and be able to collaborate with teams back and forth much more easily.
In the first year that we started using BIM I realized that there’s a bigger potential outside of just using it for production on a project. We intentionally started to focus on developing tools to use internally with the thought of eventually turning the tools into a product. So, I started looking for people to bring on to our team that had a background both in architecture and computer science.
Ball: What kinds of early efforts did you make to productize your tools?
Onuma: We started a company called Webscape that was almost like a Google Earth concept. We started building city models and attaching data to generate value for use by architects but also for other parts of the industry.
The city models were initially a research and development exercise to see how far we could push the technology, but then we started seeing that this could potentially develop into a new type of company. So we built BIM models and then we used what we learned on our models to apply the technology to our military master planning projects.
We saw an immediate increase in productivity when we started using BIM to the point that we could spend a lot more time using our profits for research and development. All the development of the software was self funded through projects.
Ball: How has your use of BIM evolved, selling both a product and a service?
Onuma: We were doing a lot of U.S. Government work, but we were not telling the clients we were using BIM. The output was just all standard paper documents of DXF flat files and the reports were coming out of the database and just printing out paper binders.
Later on in the nineties, as we started to present more in Washington, D.C., I started showing the bases that we had done in the early and mid-nineties to the Navy and Army. They were surprised to see that we were using BIM that early on. One of the questions they asked was whether we delivered a BIM model to the client. I explained that a delivery of BIM was not part of the contract but that we used it ourselves internally to develop the project efficiently.
All this time, we were using our software on projects but we started letting the client know that. In 2007 we started licensing our software. We’re still using it for projects, but we’re also licensing it out to other groups that want to use it.
Ball: In my experience, it’s rather unique to have a software company that’s also involved in applying the software on projects.
Onuma: We’ve always kept the architectural part of our office working alongside the programming and the computer science part because we felt that if we were just a software development company we would not have the knowledge or the ability to understand the logic of how these things come together to create the programs.
I feel pretty strongly about that. As this technology, interoperability and integrated practice evolves, the software vendors aren’t going to have all the answers. The industry has had to interact and create our own tools for how a building and an environment come together. And then, we have to be able to link into other tools through open standards. That’s why I push open standards so much, because we can’t have all these little islands of different tools that are proprietary to be able to solve all the problems in the industry.
Ball: How did you get involved with BIM and geospatial integration?
Onuma: From a GIS perspective, even when we were just using BIM in the mid-nineties, we had built a whole globe version. We were trying to see how many thousands of miles away you can build a model. We had built a whole BIM model of Japan in scale and then we started placing military bases in it, and flying around from one base to another in presentations.
I’ve always been interested in how the geospatial side links to BIM. And then we started a project for the U.S. Coast Guard, where they were using Google Earth (at the time it was called Keyhole, right before Google acquired Keyhole). The Coast Guard had Keyhole on their internal server and they were uploading their data about Coast Guard facilities.
We were doing a lot of BIM work for them, and we started to explore how to take BIM data and put it into Keyhole.
Obviously there are two different coordinate systems. The BIM coordinate system is local (the 0,0 point is on the lower left side of the sheet), and then the GIS coordinate system, which is wrapped around the world and is a sphere. It’s actually pretty complex, but we since our OPS tool and the planning system is a database, we discovered that we could make the translation in the database. If someone wants to take data out of the BIM we could just translate it into the local coordinate system, and if we keep track of where it is in the world and in the database we could land it into Keyhole.
The Open Geospatial Consortium had a test bed running (OWS-4) and they were already about ten months into it when they discovered what we’d done. Our system was the model server that linked GIS to BIM and gave access to what’s called Web Feature Services, to different tools that would go and grab a building, for example, and put it into a GIS environment.
That was a pretty amazing test set because they had 20 different groups interacting in real time running all kinds of scenarios about planning field hospitals, and evacuating people, and landing helicopters, and interacting with emergency services, and looking at what they call sensor webs. There were a lot of different access points to information that would come out of a building, but not for the traditional design and construction process.
We really have to push groups to advance the concept of open standards. I feel that the GIS side is quite a few years ahead of BIM as far as looking at data in a format that you can layer different types of data together and analyze it in a common format. There’s a lot of value that can go in both directions. For instance, GIS has 3-D but it’s based on a 2-D paradigm of analyzing by looking down into layers. There’s a lot of data, it’s very data rich, but a building model has a lot of 3-D data that can feed back into the GIS environment.
Ball: With your work on master planned communities you’ve obviously been involved in environmental impact work. How do these considerations factor into the BIM process?
Onuma: Whenever you do a master plan you obviously are thinking about water runoff, hardscape and softscape, and square footage of roofs. These concepts have been around, but how much are we automating. As we’re doing all this work we’re constantly looking at the process for ways we can automate so we can spend more time on stuff that we can’t automate.
In the design portion you need somebody making the calls and doing the creative part. And to be creative, and respond to sustainability and green concepts, you have to have a good dashboard of information to be able to even react to it. We prototype everything that we develop, but we create a manual process first.
If you’re going to be calculating runoff from buildings and you have to know the square footage of the roof, and you have to know the type of roof, and you have to know the location on the ground, then you can calculate the runoff. And then you look at that and you say okay, if we automated part of that process we can get the data from the building so we wouldn’t have to sit there and calculate things manually.
Ball: There’s increasing interest in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for green building. Are you incorporating LEED standards into your software?
Onuma: We have a LEED checklist in OPS to track the goals for a project. We want to look at ways of connecting more of the quantitative information from the models that would affect LEED goals. Some of them are obviously more specific to quantities and others are more related to concepts in the project.
With BIM and data coming in about a project there’s going to be a lot more opportunities to get very specific about what is a real impact of your design decision on LEED and on sustainability. I think there’s going to be a lot more potential being developed about LEED and sustainability as all these different groups and technologies start linking together.
Ball: You’ve been organizing design charrettes that you call BIM Storms. Your most recent was in Los Angeles where you had a 24-hour period of design collaboration. What were some of the major lessons learned in terms of the use of the tools and the input that you received?
Onuma: We intentionally wanted to leave it as open as possible, have a basic structure with basic rules for collaboration on the Internet. If you’re going to be integrated as teams you have to have a common language, and that was accomplished through the Internet and industry foundation classes (IFCs) and other standards.
Our goal at the beginning was to minimize the need to communicate. We shouldn’t spend time on coordinating issues that could be coordinated through the database and the model. In the traditional process you spend a lot of time in e-mail and phone calls and meetings talking about things that should already be resolved or should be just black and white data in the model.
Things like what’s a column, or what’s a floor-to-floor height, or what’s a program requirement for this building all goes away if you have the ground truth in the database online. That’s how we were able to get users to login and just pick up a model and start running with it. Everyone is collaborating through the model server, therefore they’re going to be using the right data for the project.
Ball: Are you focused at all on the time element, the temporal before and after picture of the design?
Onuma: We’ve added 4D since the BIM Storm in LA. We’ve been developing it for quite a while. We already had the time-based aspect in the model itself so the designers of each building, even during BIM Storm, they could go in and identify when that project was going to be built, for example what year and what construction period. With the new feature that we’ve added we can export that out to Google Earth and there’s a timeline you can play or drag a timeline over years and you can see buildings coming in and out in 4-D.
We feel that the time aspect is critical because as you’re looking at different scenarios and looking at an urban-scale environment, you can start simulating and asking questions. If you need to add a hundred buildings over the next ten years, when are they coming in, what happens if one gets delayed or one goes in faster, or one has design changes, or one has a green roof or doesn’t have a green roof – what is the overall impact?
Being able to put time into the model is critical, to be able to run those scenarios either for what-ifs or even after the projects are complete to be able to manage the buildings themselves. A lot of our clients are pretty excited about that because the time aspect starts getting into life-cycle and operations maintenance of their existing facilities.
Ball: Once we get to that model-based future all the separate tools – CAD, GIS, BIM – become a different interface into the model. Where do you see the interface headed in the future?
Onuma: The tools are just an interface and they should just be disposable. It’s the data in the model that’s valuable, and if that data can flow from one tool to the next—whether you’re using Google Earth, RevIt, or Excel—you should be able to interact with that model. I’m hoping that a lot of the vendors are going to start developing live links.
Google Earth has a network link that can go to a server and pick up the latest model. In the OGC Testbed we had a lot of examples of that from the GIS world, because that’s essentially how GIS works. You can go and query what the latest demographic information is and bring it into your interface.
I think there’s going to be many more interfaces into BIM rather than less. And I think it’s critical for the industry to understand the importance of that because the tendency is to decide which BIM tool to use. That should not be the answer, and that should not be the question that’s being asked.