Many, many years ago, architects started designing buildings and puting their designs down on paper so that builders knew what was desired. As time has moved forward, some designers are now creating electronic Building Information Models (BIM) for design and construction purposes. In some cases, BIM files are being passed to the owners for future facilities management. Thinking long term, how long will those BIM files be usable and will those BIM files ever get upgraded?
While I am a big proponent of BIM, I am concerned about the usability of BIM files in the future. This is due to 2 primary reasons:
The first primary reason of concern is the storage media. With media storage, you have to make sure that you can physically access the files on the media in the future. I have been concerned about this since storing files on 5-1/4” DOS diskettes and backup tapes using the UNIX operating system. This is a long-standing concern with any company that uses technology, and many companies deal with this by routinely retrieving files from storage media and putting the files on new media. I won’t dwell on this as there has been much written on this topic over the years and you can find a lot of information about this.
The second primary reason of concern is about the actual file format of the files. This reason actually has 2 components as we have both the design software itself and the software release version of the file format.
When we use design software, we either use our design software of choice or the design software specified by the final project owner. Either way, we may end up using design software that may not be around in 10, 15, or 20 years when we need to revive that project for future work. What happens when we no longer have the software to open the file? With CAD, we could save files in the .DXF file format so that they could be opened with many different software packages. With BIM today, even though we can theoretically exchange files using the IFC format, most design software packages are rather proprietary. While we never know what the future holds, we need to be cognizant of the possible (or even likely) short term life of our design software.
The other file format aspect is the release version of the file. I can pretty much open any older AutoCAD files (even 20 year old files from AutoCAD 10) in the current versions of the AutoCAD products. Even if I need to perform a “Recover” on the old file due to errors found, it is pretty rare that I can’t open an old file. However, since BIM files are rich in data, they are more complex than the traditional CAD files that we have been using for years. I have found them to not be as cooperative when trying to open an older file (multiple versions back) in a current version. As the BIM files become more complex and data rich, I have to wonder about the ability to open these files without serious errors several years after their creation. Design software has continual upgrades, with many of them having yearly upgrades. This creates many different file formats over the years with much change as a result.
In the past, when remodeling a building, we would pull out the paper construction documents and work from that. When we started using CAD, we would get out the paper documents and draw the building into our CAD software and then draw the remodeling information in our CAD software. When it was time to remodel, we would pull out our old CAD files and go to work. With BIM, it may not be so easy to move forward with the old data as we have in the past without careful planning.
What is the answer?
That is difficult to accurately say as there are many ramifications to pretty much any answer. However, I believe that a good solution might be to routinely pull projects off of the backup system, upgrade them to the current version, and resave them to current backup technology. I am fully aware that this can involve a lot of time and you might state that it is easy for me to say since I am not paying the bill. Agreed. However, a company must consider the ramifications of not having that information available to them in the future and whether there is ROI for the time spent. The ROI will vary depending on the type of design work performed and the importance of access to that information in the future.
Another aspect that comes into my answer is the party responsible for routinely upgrading the files. Is it the owner, the contractor, or the designer? This can typically be answered by determining who has the biggest stake in the reusability of the files.
Regardless of how your company handles this situation, it must be considered. It is far better to be proactive in future file retrieval than to be reactive when you need the files.