Two-minute explainer: BIM and the future of lighting design

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a way of creating a virtual building without needing to break any physical ground. BIM started life as a three-dimensional modelling system in the 1980s. It was used by architects and concentrated solely on construction elements, but the latest generation of BIM software includes all the components of a building, including MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) services. And it’s at this point that BIM as a virtual construction tool morphs into a new, more collaborative, method of working.

As each new layer of services gets added to the core design, more expertise is drawn into the process, in much the same way as services would be installed in a physical building, with BIM specialists ‘installing’ service layers into the construction model. Professional designers are learning to ‘share space’ with other disciplines in much the same way as their physical counterparts do on site.

BIM goes further

BIM enthusiasts have always felt that its usefulness doesn’t have to stop at the point when the building design is complete. If all the operational features of a building are present in the BIM model, then there’s no reason why the model cannot be analysed for energy and operational performance – and this is where everything starts to get really interesting. Up to the point where the building design is complete, the focus is on design and construction details and the project's build costs, but once the building is finished, building owners and facilities managers have realised that they already have a building that can be tested for performance and operability. Time has been brought into the formulation of BIM systems and the entire building can be ‘stress-tested’ to examine how it will perform across years of occupancy.

The history of lighting design and architectural design

Typically, the lighting design for a building only comes along once the building design is ‘frozen’; everyone has agreed where the walls and the ceiling are going and – if we’re lucky – where all the furniture will be placed. At this point it’s possible for the lighting designer, who might be a manufacturer, to produce the layouts and the supporting performance data. It is the system that we all understand and we know the drawbacks to it.

But that traditional approach brings its own problems. A ‘frozen’ scheme can be unfrozen at any point, requiring a late re-visit to the scheme; manufacturers often find that they’re just one among a number of other manufacturers, with no guarantee that all of the time taken in developing the scheme will result in an order; worst of all, a successful scheme, costed and approved, can still be lost due to ‘value engineering’.

Lighting design and BIM

BIM is prompting professional designers to learn how to ‘share space’ with other disciplines in much the same way as their physical counterparts do on site.

The BIM approach will be different. The higher level of engagement required by the members of the project team will create an inherent flexibility within the process. This will make design changes more organic to the process. The productivity benefit comes from directly supporting design development – a far cry from the phonecall that would once inform designers of major changes.

The collaborative nature of a BIM project calls for a deeper interaction between the core project team and the MEP service designers. It is a process that calls for greater trust. That will mean more use of the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) system with a more detailed procedure to agree terms on which companies will go forward to the detailed design stage and supply of the luminaire package. This will apply equally to controls companies.

Whereas some lighting companies have employed a technical office to deal with scheme designs brought in by the sales force, with personnel being practiced in CAD and lighting calculation software, the development of a BIM design process will require a greater commitment to scheme design. At the moment, a BIM-proficient designer is something of a rare commodity, much the same as architects experienced when CAD became the norm. But as graduates come into the workplace, this will become less of an issue as BIM is already a staple part of design education.

The potential challenge for the computer-modelling software lies in the integration of BIM software with lighting calculation software. It’s an ambition of the BIM evangelists, who see BIM at the very heart of the design process, that everything should come out of the BIM model. A lighting scheme developed using BIM software should be capable of delivering its performance data without having to have recourse to a third-party calculation programme. This will put companies like Relux and Dialux under pressure to ensure that their software works seamlessly within the BIM universe.

These are both challenging and exciting times for lighting design. The challenge will come from manufacturers having to invest in system hardware and software – including their personnel; while the excitement lies in a potential future where lighting design is no longer an add-on to the building design, but a component part within the design process.

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