Wayfinding and Building Information Modeling

May 4, 2011 | Industry Insight

The principles of Building Information Modeling (BIM) are now being employed on almost all large, complex building construction and renovation projects, which means that the question of how BIM relates to the planning and design of wayfinding programs is coming up with increasing frequency these days.

Most wayfinding specialists, however, are still wrestling with the idea of what is practical, or even desirable, when it comes to incorporating wayfinding information into BIM. Because of this, we decided that it might be useful to talk briefly about what we see as the key limitations, and potential strengths, of BIM as it relates to wayfinding.

The Limitations

Design Constraints
Chief among the reasons for the slow implementation of BIM by wayfinding and environmental graphic design consultants are the design limitations of CAD-based BIM tools like Revit. While signage does have architectural characteristics (materials, mounting methods, support structures, etc.), it also has graphic design aspects, such as typography, symbols, and sometimes even placed imagery.

And CAD tools don’t even come close to providing the advanced typographic and layout capabilities offered by the software currently used by most designers. For this reason, designers still strongly prefer to use applications like Adobe Illustrator for the development and documentation of actual signage elements, and then export drawings to CAD files for incorporation into project bid documents and/or Revit as appropriate.

Database Limitations
In addition to necessitating the ability to fine-tune the design, the content-heavy nature of building signage also creates a need for message schedules that can be easily sorted and filtered. While Revit does include database functions, it doesn’t provide as much power or flexibility as applications like FileMaker Pro, which allows designers to create highly customized message schedules and then quickly sort and output the data to meet the needs of everyone from proofreaders to fabricators.

The Overkill Factor
When it comes to simple sign types, like room identification elements, placing them using Revit means a lot more work with very little additional benefit. While larger or more complex signage elements may involve other building systems (particularly power), the small signs that make up the bulk of a building’s signage program are fairly repetitive and self-contained. This means that taking the substantial amount of extra time required to place them in three dimensions, as opposed to just showing them as dots on a plan, adds little value to the documentation.

Learning Curve and Costs
Compounding the above factors are issues related to the resources required to get up and running on a BIM system like Revit. While most wayfinding/EGD firms now have at least one person who is well versed in AutoCAD, and a couple of dedicated CAD workstations, it still isn’t fully integrated into the daily workflow. That means that extensive use of BIM principles on more projects will require additional staff training and the purchase of additional Revit licenses.

There are also costly hardware issues, since most firms focused on wayfinding strategy and design still work primarily in a Mac environment, and Revit is a PC-only application.

The Benefits

In addition to the obvious convenience of integrating wayfinding components into the overall project documentation, there are some other promising benefits that offer hints of how BIM can actually benefit the practice of environmental graphic design.

Object Tracking
While the actual design and documentation of individual sign types in the BIM/Revit environment is unlikely to become commonplace anytime soon, the documentation of locations and messages is much easier to envision, particularly if some of the shortcomings mentioned above can be addressed.

BIM is already being used to track items such as fixtures, doors, etc., and tracking signage components is a natural extension of this. And three-dimensional sign locations, while being time consuming to document, do help to ensure that this information is available to all of the consultants and tradespeople involved with a project, which can help to limit last-minute installation issues.

And while Revit’s database capabilities are currently less robust than a standalone database application like Filemaker Pro, it does have some of these capabilities built in, and it is easy to see some benefit in creating an integrated database if these were expanded.

3D Presentations
While BIM does not by definition have to include three-dimensional documentation, it does seem to be the norm, particularly when Revit is the tool being used. And Revit backgrounds have proven to be a great tool for creating compelling presentations of wayfinding concepts, allowing us to show SketchUp models of signage elements applied to three-dimensional renderings of the latest project architecture.

Understandable Building Documents
Clearer documents are another benefit of the three-dimensional nature of most BIM projects. Because signage elements are mounted in a variety of different locations and at varying heights (including from ceilings) depending on sign type, it is important for designers to understand the surrounding architectural conditions when specifying locations and mounting methods.

While this information is available in traditional CAD drawings, it is often subject to misinterpretation, and the three-dimensional nature of Revit documentation does help to clarify these conditions and minimize the need for last-minute changes during the installation process.

The Future

We are continuing to expand the way we incorporate BIM principles into our own projects. This includes working with architects to find ways to balance the team’s desire to have everything documented in Revit with what is practical from a budget and schedule standpoint, and also conducting independent research into ways that BIM can be used to meet the unique needs of wayfinding system documentation and management.

At the moment, our belief is that BIM and wayfinding will primarily find compatibility on very large institutional projects, but with further enhancements to BIM software tools there is the potential for this to expand to a wider spectrum of project sizes and types.