Is it inevitable for BIM and GIS to force different pathways?

by Matt Ball on December 2, 2011

Perspectives Header

There is a great deal in common between Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Geographic Information System (GIS) approaches, particularly with the larger BIM associated with the “building of” infrastructure projects or analysis of planning options. At this week’s Autodesk University, I moderated a debate regarding BIM or GIS as the way to move forward for those involved in construction and infrastructure management and maintenance domains, and the audience expressed a fair amount of frustration regarding conflicting approaches and software limitations.

There was a great deal of spirited discussion about the best approach, with several in the audience emphatically stating that GIS is and will continue to be a necessary central point for projects and ongoing large-scale maintenance. Others felt that GIS often has overreached, particularly with its lagging behind on 3D data handling and inability to deal with the arcs involved in CAD and BIM files. Many of these technical challenges have been addressed, but there continue to be gaps in workflows and entrenched approaches that will need to be surmounted to get to the next level of modeling and analysis.

Concepts or Tools
At this point in time, it’s awkward to differentiate between the concepts of BIM and GIS versus the available toolsets. Dominant vendors have defined the practice through their tools, and are likely to differentiate regarding functionality and approaches in efforts to maintain market share. Where GIS is more mature in its data handling functionality, and ability to integrate with other systems, BIM will need some time to mature in order to achieve the same level of enterprise integration.

The ability of BIM to greatly integrate scheduling demands and material costs of the construction process, place it in very high demand to alleviate the rampant waste in that market. BIM has momentum, given the inefficiencies it aims to replace, and it’s going to be important for GIS to remain flexible and accommodating to construction data and workflows in order to be a player. There is room for tight integration, particularly in the large-scale city planning space, but that push may fall on users rather than vendors to work out the tight coupling and workflow interactions.

Point of Truth
In the mix of discussions two facility managers weighed in regarding their approach to space planning and data integration. The first had a GIS-centric approach where GIS acts as the “coat rack” that building and facility information hangs from. The other spoke of CAD being the “central point of truth” because of its ability to maintain highly accurate information. Within both scenarios it was felt that BIM wasn’t yet the answer, because of the need to incorporate more data inputs, storage, and system integration that GIS now addresses. And GIS alone doesn’t have the accuracy necessary at present to address the precision needed with infrastructure workflows.

This distinction that places BIM as the engineering point of truth, and GIS as the point of truth for broader-scale site context is a short-term limitation as BIM vendors are incorporating larger-scale modeling and GIS is addressing higher precision. The convergence is inevitable, with much business at stake for vendors, and with incredible cost savings and improved efficiency for stakeholders. There is a palpable frustration level of users that have realized the vision and are demanding functionality and streamlined workflows, but are faced with limitations and a level of branding that focuses on the status quo.

Integrated Infrastructure Information
The hope is that we’ll get to the point of an integrated infrastructure information system that embraces interoperability, and facilitates cross-disciplinary workflows. That goal is certainly in the best interest for stakeholders that are under increasing pressures to create more efficient structures that consume less energy and resources, while also delivering a better quality of life.

It’s in the context of cities that the tightly integrated infrastructure information system has the most promise, because increasing population and resource pressures are pinning great hopes on the urban form. We’ve seen great promise in broad-scale modeling that allows us to closely monitor and predict performance of networks such as water distribution or transportation at the city and regional scale. The ability to add more granularity to understand the performance and efficiency at the block level, as well as the associated impacts between the natural and built world, demands the integration of building information and geographic information.

While the vendors may stick to their branding of BIM and GIS, the goals to streamline workflows and achieve more integrated analysis across infrastructure information are universal across both, perhaps leading to the need for a new term to address this. It’s exciting to see the increasing level of user interest in tighter integration, and the progression in software and system functionality that promises new functionality and insight. Without the ambiguity and friction we wouldn’t have the competitive marketplace to spur competition and speed innovation.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Malcolm Williamson December 2, 2011 at 10:31 am

In the end, there will always be a need for multiple types of geometric representation – arcs vs. line strings vs. true volumetric representations – at multiple levels of detail. However, much of the attribution can theoretically be shared amongst all of these, which points to the importance of the relational or object-relational database that serves to tie all of this together. Intelligent, hierarchical schemas are the key here, and have the potential to outlast this year’s favored geometry engines, whether CAD, GIS, or game derived. Let’s keep the ultimate desired outcome in mind and let the technology catch up – I suspect it won’t take long.

Matt Ball December 2, 2011 at 11:06 am

Well put Malcolm! While I largely echoed frustrations in this column, there’s no denying the promise and technical feasibility of the vision. Thanks for condensing the technical challenges.

Dale Lutz December 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Hi Matt,

Thanks for facilitating the session — I thought it was a unique event and hope more like it will take place in the future. The wide ranging views of the audience, which was a unique mix of GIS, CAD, Facilities, and architect folks, were most thought provoking and certainly taught me a few things. I summarized my list of “zingers” over at

Maybe there can be a rematch next year? Cage match?


Leave a Comment


{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: