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BIMstorm: Honing Bureaucracy, Giving Urbanism an Edge


by Justus Stewart

As the recent discussions in the blogosphere attest – Andrew Rivken and Joseph Fromm in two prominent examples – we are at an interesting hurdle for climate action. Post-tipping point, we are in the exciting phase where we look around the confetti-strewn floor (post-tipping point party) and ask, "now what?"

Although we find ourselves in what has been described as a 'technology gap', I would argue that it is better understood as an implementation gap. Companies, governments, and citizens are rallying and attempting to 'solve' global warming. But the dizzying array of potential solutions is intimidating, as they are mostly untried, often politically difficult, and are sometimes proposed and debunked before decision makers had learned what the hell we were talking about, a la the recent biofuels debate. It is an incredibly challenging climate (sorry) in which to formulate policy, fund untried technologies, change behavior, or restructure our bureaucracy.

In a recent WC post, it was stated that the United States' "most important environmental policy" may well be land use reform. This may not resonate with you, but it resonated loudly enough to be picked up and presented to a group of the most progressive local elected officials in California (PDF), at their annual conference.

It is local elected officials, in the U.S., who control land use. The system is old and deeply flawed, but it is the current system, and changing it – while worthy – will be an arduous task. This obvious fact lies behind a great deal of our implementation gap. Climate change challenges all of our systems simultaneously, and our systems are poorly constructed to do anything quickly, or in coordination.

This is especially true with the other major player in land use and green building (and therefore transportation and energy): the development industry. This sector is risk-averse, non-innovative, and profit-driven. But there is one sign of hope: To the development industry, time is truly money. Waiting – for environmental reviews, permits, meetings, and weathering political battles – is so integral that these processes are often included in project budgets.

Into this fray steps Kimon Onuma, and his company, Onuma, Inc. The impact they might make is subtle, but powerful; they aim to massively reduce the time it takes to move projects from concept to construction, without sacrificing design quality or basic economics. The implication is that urban projects that are riskier and more drawn-out – and therefore less desirable and more expensive – can begin to compete with sprawl development. This is good news for transit, for urban infill, for affordable housing. It's good news for land use, and therefore for sustainability.

The Onuma Planning System and BIMstorm (BIM = Building Information Modeling) relies on a platform of web-enabled software that integrates with other software through open standards, communicating with each other to design everything from a site plan to an operations & management budget. People can potentially participate from anywhere in the world (On January 31, Onuma did a BIMstorm in Los Angeles for a multi-acre site north of downtown. 133 players from 11 countries participated in the final design. Some of the results are available here), communicating through programs as common as excel, google earth, and GIS, and as expert as Computer Aided Design softwares such as Revit and Vectorworks.

What does this process yield? "For starters," as Kimon pointed out, "we did not have 700 people flying to Los Angeles for a convention." But more meaningful is another quote. The purpose of this exercise is not to determine the final design, but "creating train wrecks ahead of time." The range of software in play is comprehensive enough to go from site plan (large-scale) to pro forma (building-by-building economic performance), and through a range of designs in a 24-hour period, resulting in the equivalent of an astonishing 2.8 million pages of documents. It allows planners, designers, builders, elected officials, and the public to review the implications of design and policy decisions as they would appear on the site. A process that was once extremely time consuming, and potentially controversial, can now be advanced in a fraction of the time.

If the cost balance in this country is to ever shift away from hinterland sprawl, and toward urban development, these tools may be part of the reason why.

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Despite the silliness of responding to my own post, I would like to add that my description of the development industry as "risk-averse, non-innovative, and profit-driven" is not an indictment, just as description. There are exceptions to that rule, and (in most cases) substantive reasons why.

Posted by: justus on 7 May 08

creating train wrecks ahead of time?

Posted by: greensolutions on 7 May 08

oh, now I see.

Posted by: greensolutions on 7 May 08



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