After earning a Master’s degree in Sustainable Building Engineering, Stefania di Mauro became aware of the importance of BIM for MEP design. Today she is the BIM Manager of PrometeoEngineering.it.
Article originally published in Bimportale.
Could you describe the career path that led you to BIM?
In 2014 I moved to London where I completed a MSc Sustainable Building Engineering degree. I then started working at APA Ltd as a coordinator between MEP, architectural and structural design in the construction phase.
In the UK, the use of BIM models has been compulsory in public projects since 2011. As a result, I was able to familiarize myself with the BIM methodology and its application to MEP design.
I focused in particular on developing further the connection between the BIM model, BEM (Building Energy Modelling), and BPS (Building Performance Simulation). Connecting these specialist fields is possible with the inclusion of various types of geometric data and technical information—system type, type of insulation, opaque envelope, glass structures, energy gains, climate data, internal gains, aspects and characteristics relating to heating, cooling and ventilation—which enable energy-performance assessment through all project phases (design, execution, maintenance, etc.). An analysis of the different thermo-physical phenomena in building services systems allows us to calculate and control the consumption of resources, the energy-performance of the systems and the building envelope, and the thermo-hygrometric comfort, among others.
In 2017, I decided to move back to Italy and started working with the MEP team of PrometeoEngineering.it, with a desire to tackle challenging infrastructure projects. BIM was only just beginning to be adopted in Italy and many projects that had started years before were still using traditional design methods. This ‘step back’ made me even more aware of the need for digital transformation in the AECO sector (Architecture, Engineering, Construction, and Operations). The clearest example was the design project for Milan’s new M4 underground line, which I was privileged to work on. The clean and smooth suspended ceilings actually conceal an extensive MEP distribution system of ventilation ducts, pipes and conduits that serves stations and tunnels. Designing these systems required elaborate overlays of hundreds of drawings that were used to manually identify and prevent clashes. This exhaustive and time-consuming work can now be completed with a few clicks on a digital model, thanks to automatic clash detection tools.
We are currently involved in many exciting projects where we are also engaged with one of the challenges facing the BIM world, which is the need for dedicated software for the modelling and sizing of highly complex specialist elements, such as those in MEP systems.
How would you describe your current professional role?
I currently work as a BIM Manager and I am also actively involved in MEP design. This dual role is a strength in that it allows me to manage the BIM workflow and control design decisions and data. I am constantly involved in promoting and developing digitalisation and BIM, in an effort to reinterpret traditional workflows with innovative methods and tools, and to provide new advanced solutions to clients.
What do you see as the advantages of BIM?
The availability of a digital twin provides clear benefits in terms of clash management. Pipes, conduits, and ventilation ducts are no longer represented by ‘lines’ that overlap with one another, or with architectural and structural elements. In BIM models, the different elements that are fitted in limited spaces in suspended ceilings, inside elevated floors or elsewhere are all represented in 3D. This makes it easy to identify clashes and resolve them through coordinated action.
MEP professionals are able to optimise their workflow and manage RFIs (Requests for Information) with the help of collaborative models that allow real-time visualization of MEP systems. Overall, greater attention and precision during MEP design reduces potential issues during subsequent phases.
The BIM approach is a peerless tool for collaboration among people involved in design, execution and management. In traditional design projects, the people involved would each design their own part independently and only occasionally come together to share their work and collaborate. This inevitably leads to design inconsistencies, which can emerge in the later stages of a project, in some cases as late as the construction phase. Proper communication between the various participants is essential for preventing design errors and costly changes to ongoing projects. As an example, requests for builderswork openings can be generated automatically for ducts, pipes, cable trays, fire protection and other systems with the appropriate space included for insulation.
BIM also helps to improve design through analysis and simulations. Combining technical information, plans and drawings allows you to create models accurately represent how the final installation will look and these models can also be easily shared to project participants. The benefits of this trickle down throughout a project’s life cycle, as BIM tools help produce a smarter design that helps in attaining project objectives and improves the project results for all stakeholders involved.
BIM can also help reduce costs and the time required to complete a project, as increasingly sophisticated BIM models help detect errors and prevent otherwise unforeseen events that could result in additional costs and slow down projects.
From a simple design perspective, however, it must be pointed out that—at least currently—there are no particular cost or time reductions in the initial phases of a new project or during the transition to BIM methodology. This has to be taken into account when undertaking BIM design projects.
Can you elaborate on some of your current projects in more detail?
I am currently involved in the design for the Saronno City Hub, a technological and transport development surrounding the Saronno railway station, and in the design of the Verona-Padua AV/AC (high-speed/high-capacity) railway line.
In the Saronno City Hub project, MEP modelling was done in an Autodesk Revit environment and it includes ventilation, air conditioning, radiant heating, plumbing, drainage, fire safety, electrical and special systems.
One of the challenges facing the BIM community today is the need for dedicated software for the modelling of complex elements—such as those in MEP systems—that also enables instant control of specific MEP-related information, such as head loss, type of fluid; pre-sizing, air velocity, electrical loads and more, which all need to be entered into the project’s database.
In this project, all the systems have been modelled and calculated directly in the design software thanks to MagiCAD functions that allow for dimensioning and verification of the networks. In a way, it is as if we construct the entire building virtually, switch on all the systems and, if necessary, adjust them to correct any errors we find during the analysis.
All the design data is automatically saved into MEP families as parameters and the data can be exported to reports and legends, and included in calculation reports. This means that when the MEP model is complete, it is possible to view and export system diagrams, bills of quantities, calculation reports, and other details, and since the information comes directly from the model, it is always up-to-date with any changes that have been made in the meantime.
In addition, by using plug-ins to connect to manufacturers’ own selection, calculation, and sizing software, we were able to configure the MEP equipment according to the design parameters and requirements. For example, we used the SystemAir Configurator plug-in to configure air handling units. The application allowed us to define the installation type, duct positions, integrated heating units, the heat exchanger, and other things. The configured product can then be imported into the design in .rfa format, complete with dimensions, symbols, connectors and technical specifications, such as air flow rate, head loss, sound level, efficiency, communication data. The technical data can be used for calculations, such as flow, sizing, balancing and noise calculations.
Another add-in software that we were able to test already from the initial phases of the project is BIM Track, a collaboration platform for managing issues in a BIM project. With BIM Track we had a single channel of communication within the project team (architects, structural designers, MEP designers) with e-mails and comments linking directly to issues. In this way, it was possible to keep track of modification requests as they were assigned directly to the participants involved and you could add comments, track progress and export reports.
The design of the Verona-Padua AV/AC (high-speed/high-capacity) railway line, allowed us to implement BIM methodology for infrastructure. I-BIM (Infrastructure-Building Information Modelling) is a considerably different activity from working with buildings. The division between horizontal BIM (infrastructure) and vertical BIM (buildings), as they are often defined, is due to the fact that the adoption of BIM tools for infrastructure is more recent compared to the use of BIM for buildings. Because of this, the relevant software tools, standards and processes are not as developed. The interoperability between geographic data and design data, a marginal aspect in building projects, is a crucial factor when infrastructure is involved.
In the project, the client required a federated multidisciplinary model, which led us to adopt an ‘object-based’ approach for the project, in which parameters and values were assigned for each object.
In MEP design, which is full of objects and data, highly precise and hierarchical object coding often runs into a very practical obstacle, which is the difficulty in transferring information. Exporting a Revit project to an interoperable format requires the creation of four distinct parallel items:
- Mapping Table, a table of equivalences between Revit categories and Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs)
- PropertySets, property sets that enable the exporting party to turn Revit parameters into custom IFC parameters
- User Defined PropertySets, property sets that enable the exporting party to turn Revit parameters into custom IFC parameters
- Parameter Mapping Table, a table of equivalences between the parameters in a Revit project and the parameters already defined in IFC.
The need for these automated procedures illustrates the difficulty in translating the information contained in MEP models.
In this project we used custom property sets to map the parameters. The property sets were essentially a text file that explains to the software which Revit parameter must be translated into an IFC parameter, and where it needs to be positioned within the property set structure.
The parameters were managed with the help of schedules and the SheetLink plug-in, which enabled us to compile and modify their values in common spreadsheets and then reimport them into the model.
After having found the optimal solution for data transfer and resolving various calculation problems that can influence the values, the property sets were also used for QTO (Quantity Take Off) and bill of quantities documents. By associating different processes, formulas and prices with objects in the model, we can extract the exact quantities of components and update the bill of quantities and the cost calculation accordingly whenever the project is modified.
What are the future prospects of BIM in Italy, in your opinion?
The digital reconfiguration of the AECO chain (Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Operation) at this particular time, when the construction sector is facing complex economic, social, and employment challenges, can be a driver for boosting productivity and economic growth. It would be shortsighted not to take advantage of this opportunity.
The recently adopted Italian BIM Decree (DM 560/2017) defines the gradual introduction of digital modelling and information management, consistent with the guidelines of the European Commission as defined by the EU BIM Task Group. This introduction of BIM should be viewed as a strategic tool that offers cost-savings, improved productivity and operating efficiency, and better quality and environmental performance within the context of a transparent competitive framework.
It is not an overstatement to say that this is a crucial time for Italy. We have a unique opportunity to rethink our public administration bodies and improve their administrative capacity, so that they can become more modern and capable of innovation, which will bring tangible benefits to citizens and businesses.
The digital revolution is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not only for those involved in design, construction and property management, but in a broader sense as a driver for our country’s development.
To achieve this goal there must be a real willingness on the part of politicians, managers and public officials—who need to recognize the advantages of the digital model to work organization, work satisfaction and skills application—as well as a collaborative approach by everyone involved in the tender process and in project execution.
A considerable amount of time and investment is required to implement the working methods and software tools of BIM, but there cannot and must not be any doubts as to its efficacy. While the solutions may not be revolutionary, they are definitely useful for improving the processes of the construction supply chain, and consequently, the design, construction and maintenance phases themselves.
We still have a lot of work to do in terms of interoperability and information exchange to achieve a full transfer of data when moving from proprietary to open formats. We need to ensure that all activities linked to the life cycle of a building, infrastructure or a complex system are interconnected within a process, and data, metadata and information all play a crucial role in this.